Last weekend I was fortunate enough to see a wonderful production of King Lear at Chichester. I admit that my initial reason for buying the tickets was a bit shallow; I didn’t want to miss the chance to see Sir Ian McKellen while he is still in full pomp. His Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies has loomed large in our family’s cultural life over nearly two decades and I felt sure his Lear was going to be worth watching.
Indeed it was. But we got so much more for our money than a close-up look at the venerable national treasure. Feargal Keane writes a brilliant essay in the programme noting how apposite the themes and context of our current age fit with a tragedy written four centuries ago. He references the powerful scene in Act 3 Scene 2 when the stage is literally deluged in the storm into which Lear is cast out, “Blow winds and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow, You cataracts and hurricanoes.” Keane states, ‘Shakespeare’s King Lear resonates powerfully in a present tense of raging hurricanes, the dysfunctional Trump family presidency, Brexit and nuclear standoff in the Pacific.’ These are mad times.
As I write, Hurricane Ophelia is in the Western Approaches and is reported by weather forecasters to be the most easterly category 3 hurricane on record. The physical tempests do indeed strangely mirror the social and political traumas that cast their shadows across 2017. Interestingly, Keane’s list of current challenges are nearly all self-inflicted injuries that similarly reflect Lear’s ill-chosen succession plan.
Whilst the political elements in the play are fascinating it is the domestic and personal dramas that are so engaging and, at times, gruelling. King Lear’s personal dissolution as his flattering daughters turn against him, shines such clear shafts of light on the importance of looking after affairs at home and making wise decisions as parents. Something perhaps we know about in the education sector.we perhaps know something about.
Shakespeare also has the enduring power to capture a timeless truth in well-selected words. Lear’s daughter, Regan, observes of him in Act 1, Scene 1: ‘Tis the infirmity of his age. Yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself’. Self-awareness is so often the key to effective leadership and the lack of it to the reverse result. How clever that in observing a father going mad with grief, I was made to reflect deeply on the risks of my own follies and made more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses.
As you can tell, I rather enjoyed the play! I could write so much much more but will end with this personal thought. What a timely reminder this was for me of why we do what we do. Sometimes we need such a powerful experience to remember that inspiring children and young people to learn and to love literature is not really (or at all?) about helping them to pass a test. It is about helping them to access texts and productions like these that will lead them to a richer and more reflective life.
14 October 2017