Lear, perhaps more than any other tragedy, is an investigation into foolishness. And its apparent modernity is connected to what feels (incorrectly) like the recent sophistication of combining the serious with the absurd. Lear is a tragic figure because of the ridiculousness to which he descends: “the worst”, as Edgar puts it, “returns to laughter”. Shakespeare was fascinated by that point of utter degradation where misery can only be conveyed in mirth. Titus Andronicus is asked, amid his despair, “why dost thou laugh? it fits not with this hour”, and he responds, authentically: “Why, I have not another tear to shed”.
Shakespeare the dramatist knew that there was a thin line sometimes between laughter and slaughter. Both productions of Lear are played for the uneasy amusement of the audience; both Fools (Graham Turner at the Barbican; an antic clownish figure, clothed in painter’s overalls) use their physicality to illustrate the sometimes archaic jokes of the text. But one cannot help but see that ”“ in the Old Vic production at least ”“ the audience laughs because it is the only emotion that is accessible, their safest means of engagement. When Regan hurls one of Gloucester’s plucked-out eyes towards us, there are guffaws; when Gloucester bemoans his fate (“alack I have no eyes”), people snigger. This was not a moment in which tragedy was being reinforced by absurdity, but evidence of a play that had not moved its audience to sadness because it had not trusted to the words throughout.
Samuel Johnson said that Lear, and its conclusion, were “unbearable”. There are clearly scenes which are almost unplayable: Edgar accompanying his father, as he casts himself (as he believes it) off the cliffs of Dover failed in both productions, and felt unrealistic. But amid the difficulties there can be triumphs; and we see these in the figures of Sher and Jackson, and their profound and impressive performances amid the chaos. Fail again; fail better: that’s the modern King Lear for you.