The Cordelia Dream

Wilton’s Music Hall
11 Dec – 10 Jan 2009
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s felicitous selection of Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End as the venue for its new productions was not enough to salvage its latest play, “The Cordelia Dream.” In an elegant, ghostly setting conjuring the spirit of Archie Rice and Alfred Hitchcock’s magical addition to “The Thirty-nine Steps,” Mr. Memory, the RSC worked hard to transform a wordy, tortuous script into a theatrical experience worthy of this theatre. The actors in this two-hander, David Hargreaves and Michelle Gomez, were captivating and deserve better roles.

As its title hints, “Cordelia” reworks Lear’s themes: father-daughter, loyalty-disloyalty, inheritance-betrayal, love-jealousy and discovery-loss. (It was no surprise to read in the programme notes that David Hargreaves played Lear in an RSC production I regret having missed.) This Lear is not a king, but a music composer with regal pretentions, and his Cordelia is an heir whose absence of talent, as he sees it, makes her unworthy to wear the crown. Marina Carr’s text allowed for ambiguity – in the first act, was the Woman the Man’s lover or his daughter? and in the second, was she alive or dead? – every nuance between this Lear and Cordelia was spelled out in such detail that only a pause borrowed from Pinter might have rescued the dialogue from its determination to elaborate on every thought in the characters’ (and perhaps the playwright’s) minds. It is not that Carr lacks facility with the English language. In fact, much of the text is beautifully written. It is just that there is too much of it.
The story develops the nature of a relationship between one father and one daughter, exposing their mutual passion, hatred and misunderstanding. Selina Cartmell’s direction carefully exposes the essence of the confusions that beset the Man and the longing for his love by the Woman. Through no fault of the actors or director, potentially interesting exchanges between the characters leave nothing unsaid and allow the audience no opportunity to draw conclusions for itself. The play is worth seeing for the performances as well as the wonderful surroundings of a music hall built in 1858 and much in need or repair. (The Mayhew sisters, who are attempting to restore Wilton’s to its Victorian glory, welcome donations as well as volunteers.)
It is difficult to determine where the RSC’s £300,000 budget went. Can a cast of two, a bare plywood set, a three-piece orchestra (who played beautifully) and a modest rent to Wilton’s have consumed that estimable sum? If so, the prospects for theatre in recession-doomed Britain look grim.