“King Lear” is the most mythic of Shakespeare’s tragedies. With none of the specificity of Elsinore or Glamis, it has the archetypal appeal of a fairytale. So it’s a surprise to see a production given such a concrete setting as Great Britain in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s government. But while this decision by helmer Rupert Goold (whose staging of “Macbeth” made a splash on Broadway last season) puts the play’s political machinations into interestingly sharp relief, it takes a toll on the tragedy’s majestic scale.
The production begins with a voiceover that draws us back to Thatcher’s victory speech of May 1979. “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony,” said the new prime minister, quoting St. Francis of Assisi. Ironically, her premiership would be characterized by the disharmony of urban riots, union strife and war, so here, her speech serves as a portent of the social breakdown about to be ushered in by Pete Postlethwaite’s Lear.
Goold’s idea is not always an easy fit with the play, nor is it arbitrary. This co-production with the helmer’s own Headlong company is one of the last major events in Liverpool’s year as European City of Culture, a program that has helped redefine the city’s identity after decades of post-industrial decline. That decline was at its most acute during the Thatcher years, when a left-wing city council did battle with a right-wing central government and, in 1981, the residents of the deprived Toxteth neighborhood took to the streets for a weekend of rioting.
You feel these resonances in Giles Cadle’s set of weed-strewn steps leading not to some grand civic building as might be expected, but to a shield of corrugated iron. More explicit are the period film projections and, in the closing scenes, the arrival of soldiers in riot gear. Goold builds a powerful impression of an empire in decline, from rampaging soccer hooligans and the loveless sex of Jonjo O’Neill’s Edmund to the “Dallas”-style power dressing of Caroline Faber’s Goneril and Charlotte Randle’s Regan.
The atmosphere of moral disorder is intensified by the violence of the blinding of Gloucester (John Shrapnel), during which Regan appears to end up with an eyeball in her mouth. It’s illuminating to see Lear’s madness coincide with this social malaise, but to link his story so closely to a period of British politics — however bleak — is to limit the full range of his journey.
Although Postlethwaite has a bushy white beard worthy of George Bernard Shaw, in his 1970s man-made fibers he looks more librarian than king. Arriving to a chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and quoting Frank Sinatra, he’s less patriarch than team leader. This diminishes the magnitude of his subsequent disappointments and the depths of his fall from grace.
It isn’t so much a matter of the actor’s interpretation — which is lucid and earthy, showing an easy relationship with the audience — as of the context in which he finds himself. This is a world of small-town councilors, not a regal court, and the open heath on which Lear wanders is no more desolate than the urban wasteland he leaves behind.
As a result, the production has too steady a tone and too muted an emotional range. But it does display the spark of creative energy that explains why Goold is London’s hottest young helmer.
The man responsible for the recent hits “No Man’s Land” and “Six Characters in Search of an Author” — not to mention a forthcoming “Oliver!” — directs with clarity and wit, whether he’s showing Edgar (Tobias Menzies) as a marathon runner doing laps of the theater or putting the deranged Lear in a flowery dress. It makes for a lively production weighed down by the imperfect fit of its own concept.