When the Royal Shakespeare Company mounts a new play about an ageing powerbroker dividing up his empire and going mad as it descends into civil war, it’s not hard to spot the inspiration. Dennis Kelly’s dystopia “The Gods Weep” has the raging sweep of “King Lear” but lacks the salve of its poetry. Compassionate though the final scenes are, they come at the considerable cost of a lengthy, diffuse first half that loses all but the most dedicated audiences.
“What did you do before?” asks one blood-soaked soldier of another. “I was an executive head of communications. You?”
“Financial Advisor. Futures and hedge funds.”
The bitter laugh that greets this exchange is atypical of a play that wears its ideas surprisingly heavily for a dramatist as skilled as Kelly. He imagines a Britain wrecked by the untrammeled ruthlessness of corporate capitalism that opens the play. Echoing Shakespeare’s despot, Colm (Jeremy Irons) hands over the power of his multinational company to warring seconds-in-command Catherine (smilingly merciless Helen Schlesinger) and rolling-boil Richard (Jonathan Slinger).
Factor in a subplot of Jimmy (nervy Luke Norris), a son teetering on the edge of sanity pursuing a desperate relationship with married Nadine (an overemoting Nikki Amuka Bird), and the scene is set for powerstruggles, blackmail and deception on an epic scale with disastrous consequences.
The production is seriously flawed by the decision of helmer Maria Aberg to resist the text’s three-act structure. Kelly’s text has major tonal contrasts between the first-act boardroom battles, the second-act civil war and the third-act reconciliation between Colm and the Cordelia-like figure of Barbara (Joanna Horton).
Aberg supplies just one intermission in the middle of the second act. While her decision appears to help by cutting the running time, it dangerously blurs the stylistic boundaries between the acts.
Kelly, however, must shoulder blame for overelaborate plotting. Characters are misleadingly set up as central to the play’s dilemmas, only to ebb away. There are also entire strands that add detail but divert from the main stem.
“King Lear” is not the only work echoed. Kelly acknowledges a debt to Kurosawa’s movie “Ran” but there are shades of Edward Bond’s similarly brutalist “Lear” too. And as the savagery finally shifts to the calm of Colm learning the power of generosity over cruelty, it’s hard not to think of Sarah Kane’s notorious “Blasted.”
Naomi Dawson’s great curve of a concrete set offset by a tree has a scale equal to Kelly’s ambition and Aberg’s cast cannot be faulted for their conviction. If the defiant evening is finally a defeat, it’s certainly a honourable one.