Theatre reviews: Queen Lear and Measure for Measure, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

The wind thunders through the trees, but the rain holds off; and so a tiny, select audience '“ undeterred by a day of lowering cloud in Glasgow '“ finally gets to see this year's Bard In The Botanics production of Queen Lear, in which the fine Scottish actress Janette Foggo steps up to the mighty Shakespearean role of the failing monarch who gives away a kingdom '“ and absolutely makes that role her own.
Queen Lear (Janette Foggo) with Cornelius (Nathan Byrne) and Regan (Stephanie McGregor).  PIC: John DevlinQueen Lear (Janette Foggo) with Cornelius (Nathan Byrne) and Regan (Stephanie McGregor).  PIC: John Devlin
Queen Lear (Janette Foggo) with Cornelius (Nathan Byrne) and Regan (Stephanie McGregor). PIC: John Devlin

Queen Lear ****

Measure For Measure ****

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Carefully shaped by director Jennifer Dick around a small cast of six actors – which means no Edgar or Edmund, no Gloucester family sub-plot, no armies, and no visible husbands for Lear’s ambitious daughters, Goneril and Regan – this powerful two-hour version of Lear evolves into a kind of detective story, searching through Shakespeare’s text for the phrases, the scenes, and the clues that make this play seem, ever more convincingly, like a portrait of a great and powerful ruler succumbing to the early stages of dementia.

Lear’s irrational rages and abrupt decisions, her rapid mood-swings and strange shifts between madness and absolute clarity, are all of a piece with this diagnosis, as is her painful but incomplete confusion towards the end of the play – “Where have I been? Where am I? I would I were assured of my condition...” And Janette Foggo’s towering performance makes the interpretation work, painful and heart-breaking though it is; so that her bewilderment and fear at her own fading reason seems even more profound that her shock at the sudden collapse of her earthly powers.

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In a final poignant twist, Lear’s loving youngest daughter, Cordelia, is transformed into a studious-looking young son, Cornelius, who despises his sister’s cruelty and ambition, and takes on the role of Lear’s fool, the better to care for her. It’s a shift that only strengthens the powerful Lear-Fool relationship, and leads to a shatteringly poignant final scene, as Lear cradles her dear lost son in her arms. And as for the outdoor setting – well, given the intensity of Shakespeare’s descriptions of wind and weather in this play, it is the best, without compare; particularly on nights when rain and cloud threaten to do their worst, but somehow – miraculously – we get away with it.

In the Kibble Palace, meanwhile, the final Bard In The Botanics offering of the summer is a radical reworking of Measure For Measure, Shakespeare’s memorable account of the hypocrisy of a pious deputy, Angelo, who – asked to take the Duke of Vienna’s place while he goes on his travels – launches a fierce and lethal moral campaign against ordinary vices like fornication, while privately conceiving such a violent lust for Isabella, a young nun who comes to ask for his mercy, that he proposes that she succumb to a kind of organised rape by him, in return for her brother’s life.

It is an ugly tale, conveyed by Shakespeare in a tortured poetry that aches with his own ambivalence towards the patriarchal abuses and machinations he describes. And in Gordon Barr’s production and adaptation, for a cast of just four, this critique of patriarchy is ratcheted up to new heights by the decision to replace Isabella’s erring brother, Claudio, with a pregnant sister, Claudia, likewise condemned to death; and then to make this same Claudia stand in for Angelo’s neglected fiancée, Mariana, in the nasty bed-trick that finally resolves the plot.

It’s a device that introduces infinite layers of abuse and cruelty to what is already recognised as one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays. And although this whole structure sometimes seems set to collapse under the strain it adds to Shakespeare’s already contorted verse, both Nicole Cooper as Isabella and Kirk Bage as the Duke – with a powerful Esme Bayley as Claudia, and Adam Donaldson as Angelo – seem more than equal to the challenge, ripping into some of the most powerful and mysterious lines in the whole Shakespeare canon with an intelligence and skill that send shivers down the spine, and makes us long for more Shakespeare, all year round.