Friday, June 26, 2009

Impressions from King Lear

On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again
O golden-tongued Romance with serene lute!
Fair plumed Syren! Queen of far away!
Leave melodizing on this wintry day,
Shut up thine olden pages, and be mute:
Adieu! for once again the fierce dispute,
Betwixt damnation and impassion'd clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit.
Chief Poet! and ye clouds of Albion,
Begetters of our deep eternal theme,
When through the old oak forest I am gone,
Let me not wander in a barren dream,
But when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.
-John Keats

As I sat down to watch King Lear once again this weekend at the Shakespeare Company’s production in Sydney Harmon Hall, I knew that I would be mentally assaulted by the haunting scenes within the great tragedy. I was not prepared however, for the performance’s visceral intensity to strike me on such a deep level that shocked me out of my literary facilities. The impact was profound and much desired, turning a simple night at the theater into a much more than bargained for experience.
After a bit of digesting, I have made some notes of what I liked about the directorial decisions in the play. Of course, Stacey Keach’s performance was magnanimous, and I give him the utmost respect. So much so, that I will not attempt to critique his portrayal of perhaps the most rich and dense character in all of Shakespeare.
First and foremost, the directorial choice to set the play in late 20th century Yugoslavia was a gamble that paid off. The setting evoked my memories of confusion and helplessness as I remembered not fully understanding the complexities of the Bosnian genocide as it played out during my teenage years. At the same time, a great sense of shock at the horrible nature of the conflict and compassion for the victims of that brutality overcame me. Furthermore, these images were only buttressed for me as a result of the classes I took with Kateri Carmola studying the cause and nature of genocide. In the end, evoking the complex nature yet undeniable horror of mass slaughter applies ever so fittingly to the experience of Lear. In every experience I have had with the play, I have struggled to grasp the full scope of the plot, not to mention its incredibly complicated subtextual interweavings. With that said however, I have never failed to feel the power of humanity that ripples throughout the text, and the setting in Robert Falls's version of Lear gets right to that same power.
Beyond the setting, the portrayal of Edmund (Jonno Roberts) was the innovative aspect of the play that struck me the most. Wearing a Stasi like trench-coat, the character is not portrayed as the brooding and spiteful, “Iagonian”character, rather, we see Edmund as a sociopathic character, cynical to the hilt, and gladly willing to take part in vile mischief with no apparent end in sight other than amusement. Instead of righting the wrong assigned him by the wheel of fortune, this Edmund seems more willing to spin it like he is on the Price is Right and let the chips fall where they may. Perhaps the best descriptor of this is his unwillingness to cut himself with a knife, using a blood packet instead, to prove to his father Gloucester his supposed struggle with his brother Edgar. This cowardly deception gets again to the banality of evil demonstrated by the facilitators of genocide. This idea is only strengthened by the portrayal of Oswald (Dieterich Gray) as a bumbling and seducible skater-punk, seeking to bed a cougar in Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotten) and/or Regan (Kate Arrington).
Speaking of the women in the play, I loved the costuming decision to clad the evil daughters in fur, and even for the odious Goneril to go so far as to wear both fur and leather at the same time! Beyond the costuming, I liked how we got to see a crack in Paris Hiltonesque Regan’s coldhearted fa├žade as she shakes nervously in her front row seat to her hopped up hubby Cornwall's (Chris Genebach) Gloucester gouge-athon, only to see it quickly filled with cement as she lights a cigarette and orgasmically yells “Let him smell his way to Dover!”
The award for most haunting scene in the play is a tie in my book. The chilling presentation of the dead Cordelia (Laura Odeh), a victim of BTK-like atrocity, is enough to make any viewer a little more than squeamish. Yet Falls’s portrayal of the death of Gloucester was another gamble with a large reward. As the blinded Gloucester (Edward Geroh) ambles into the center of the stage and falls to his knees. Left alone while his restored son Edgar seeks help, an overwhelming Sigur Ros-like prayer song billows throughout the theatre while body bag after body bag is brought out and unceremoniously disposed of by coroners in an open hole in front of Gloucester. He is completely oblivious to the haunting scene taking place around him, a chilling reminder of how we ourselves are too often blind to the horrors of war around us until we ourselves become victims. At the end of the scene, Gloucester, a dead body now himself, is tossed into the pit, a chilling reminder of how we bury our dead in war.
The production was in my opinion an overarching success that allowed for the humors (few and far between) of the play to sing harmoniously alongside the virtuostic and inestimable tragedy of the fall of the great Lear. After a few days to come to terms with the jarring nature of King Lear I feel that Robert Falls did not leave me to wander in a barren dream, and instead gave me my Phoenix wings to fly at my desire. Let’s just hope that they aren’t made of wax.

No comments: