Following David Greig’s Dunsinane, inspired by Macbeth, Dennis Kelly’s new play for the Royal Shakespeare Company takes on the even bigger challenge of responding to King Lear.
The Gods Weep tells a Lear-shaped story in a contemporary context. It is admirable in its ambition and daring, in its willingness to take on huge themes such as destruction and redemption. But unfortunately it also proves an unwieldy and unconvincing piece of drama that loses its way in the storm.
The play shares with Shakespeare’s tragedy a sense of profound dysfunction in both personal and public life: a sense that values need fundamental repair. It begins, as does Lear, with a potent man handing over his power and so releasing a snaky mess of ambition and greed.
This being 21st-century Britain, however, the arena is that of big business: the transaction takes place in the boardroom. The man handing over the reins is Colm, a highly successful business man who has run a ruthless operation and is now suffering a crisis of conscience. Jeremy Irons makes him a compelling figure: gaunt, desiccated and gnawed from the inside by doubts and self-loathing.
The ensuing scenes can be viciously funny as the newly empowered executives start trading expletives and concocting plots. Helen Schlesinger’s power-suited Catherine bustles about beadily, while Jonathan Slinger’s excellent Richard is so clammily nasty you expect to see a slime trail behind him when he moves.
Meanwhile Jimmy, Colm’s weird, underwritten son (Luke Norris), feels rejected by everyone and deliberately provokes a destructive crisis.
So far, so good – but then the play veers off into wild, crazy territory as the warring factions take to armed combat. Suddenly we are not in the boardroom, but on the battlefield, with Catherine and Richard sporting flak jackets and kitted up with automatic weapons.
Kelly may be making a point about the potentially devastating consequences of financial meltdown and – drawing on the recent crisis – examining the structures and values we live by. But even so, this apocalyptic vision doesn’t play as remotely convincing, despite Maria Aberg’s energetic direction. Mad mystical pronouncements from a business astrologist don’t help.
Meanwhile, Colm is living as an outcast in the woods along with his Cordelia figure (Joanna Horton), the daughter of a wronged business rival. Their scenes together are often moving and funny, as Colm tries to whittle spears and get back in touch with simple humanity. It is too late for him, of course. But sadly it is also too late for the play, which has unravelled too far to recover.