So I've been thinking recently about the content of my blog. I've been writing basically only about theatre, which wasn't really my intent. But real life is tricky. Most of my job is confidential, and the ins and outs of my volunteer house seem too private and its hard to figure out what to say. But I'm quickly approaching the end of my volunteer year and I do have some thoughts on that coming up. I've decided anyway, that I'm not forcing anyone to read my blog (umm ok I might be...) But if you are reading this, you probably are either interested in what I've been saying about the dc theatre scene, or you like me a whole lot, or have the same last name as I do. So here comes another (very long, very in depth) theatre post.
I saw King Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre Company a few weeks ago and it took me a few days to recover from the shock of it. I know King Lear pretty well, I've read it 4 separate times and now have seen it on stage twice. On Monday before seeing this production I was making jokes because the theatre placed this warning on it: "Recommended for mature audiences. King Lear will feature graphic violence, sexuality and nudity." And honestly I thought that was pretty great. At UPS, when our productions featured certain things we had to put warning signs in the hallway for the audience. This applied to stuff like smoking, gunshots, or nudity. In fact, it was a running joke during my thesis play that we wanted to push the limits and have as many warning signs as possible. We did pretty well on that account.
Well for this productions warning signs would have been exceptional. There were too many gunshots to count, 3 entirely naked actors, several characters were graphically smothered to death, smoke, fog, there was even a CAR driven on stage. I'm not sure that last one needs a warning, but just to give you an idea of the spirit of the production. And I was honestly not ready for the levels of brutality this production accomplished. This production is not for the weak hearted, and I'm going to discuss some of the very graphic things it explored. Before I move on I have to say that all the people I went with loved this production. They really enjoyed it, and my reaction is by far the most critical I've encountered.
This production seemed to be very interesting in finding and exploring the moral ambiguities of the characters. Almost no one escaped unscathed. Generally King Lear holds a host of unsavory characters, notably Goneril and Regan, Cornwall, and the villain of the piece, Edmund. And these four nasty characters are enough to to rip the whole fabric of their world apart. This production took it a step further. The characters who are usually sympathetic and noble, the ones who carry the show and act as a moral center for the audience to follow, were all were destroyed by this production. For instance Kent, Lear's loyal servant, the voice of reason, threatened to brutally sodomize Goneril's servant Oswald. Here, Oswald was a nasty piece of work, but still the noble Kent lost his nobility in this threat. Albany, usually the sole voice of reason in the sisters world, rapes his wife. Even Edgar, usually the most noble character, still first emerges as a flamboyant, foolish drunk.
Somehow amidst all this debauchery, Gloucester emerges as the long sympathetic figure, with Edgar, his son also moving past his initial drunken foolishness and finally approaching the heroic space he usually holds. Yet it is this Gloucester, who is particularly nasty about Edmund's illegitimacy in his first appearance. who becomes the hero of the play. And what a tragic hero he is, giving his eyes and his life for Lear.
While this is an enormously long play, this production pushed over 3 hours and very little was cut. However, the last act was sliced and diced and for content it seems, not time. This production, obsessed with pulling the evil out of every good character, and the good out of the evil, cuts Edmund's attempt at atonement at the end. In the traditional script, Edmund and Edgar have a sword fight and Edmund is mortally wounded by Edgar. When Edmund realizes that he is dying and that it in fact is his brother who killed him, he tells Edgar he has ordered Lear and Cordelia's executions and Edgar rushes off to stop it. This is completely absent. Instead, Edgar pulls out a gun and blows Edgar away killing all dialog of the scene and obliterating Edgar's moment of change. This puzzles me. Why would this production, so interested in exploring the darkness and ambiguity of the human soul, remove the one good deed Edmund does? Even at best it is a sorry attempt to save Lear and Cordelia. It truly is a classic example of too little too late. Even if he did save them, it would not be enough to atone for all of his horrific misdeeds. And this is a particularly nasty Edmund, who not 30 minutes earlier strangles Cornwall with his tie, another bit of script alteration that bothered me.
To take this even further, in this production Goneril and Regan die after Edmund, not before. And not only this but Goneril strangles her sister on stage over Edmund's lifeless body, instead of off stage. By the time Goneril finished smothering her sister and shot herself, I was ready for the play to be over. But they were just warming up for the most brutal moment yet: Lear stumbled onstage carrying the naked, beaten, and obviously violated body of Cordelia. I was not expecting this and it shocked me. But maybe not in the way they intended.
As I mentioned I've seen King Lear on stage before. I saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production with Ian McKellen as King Lear. While that production was by no means puppies and kittens, in fact it was effectively brutal, its violence didn't approach this level at all. And I'm really at a loss. I didn't hate this production. The acting was good, the design was interesting, there were some phenomenal stage pictures and moments, but I really cannot move past the brutality of it. I'm not sure what the place of all the violence is supposed to be. Who is the hero in this tale, where all the characters are despicable? The last lines of the play are usually spoken by Goneril's sweet and misused husband. However, the Albany of this play was such a beast that his lines had to be given away to Edgar, who is the only good charter possibly in the whole production. And certainly he is the only one left standing, or more accurately oddly delivering the final lines crawling across the stage. I'm just left really not sure that I like this interpretation of King Lear, although it was definitely provoking.
Is this play a product of the times? Its set in 1990's in the Balkans. It feels achingly modern and its commentary on war is clear. Is it a product of the focus of the last few years on graphic and violent TV shows and movies and the crowd of anti heroes and despicable protagonists who populate them? Called into existence because of "The Shield", and "Dexter" most importantly "The Sopranos?" Quite possibly. But is this the way King Lear is intended? Or has it mutated into something different entirely? I'm left unsure, and slightly unhappy.
One of my college professors calls King Lear the best play in the English language. And maybe my problem comes down to this : the language was lost in the shuffle of all this epic violence and hatred. The actor who seems to speak the verse best was the villain, Edmund, who delivered his lines clearly and thrillingly in between stabbing, shooting, strangling, and seducing everyone in sight. The other actors didn't always seem to 100% understand their lines in a way that they communicated to the audience. I'm not sure what message that sends. The stage picture at the end, heaps of garbage and smashed up cars and dead characters, including a dead Cordelia completely naked on a table took away the power of Kent's last lines.
Or maybe my problem is that this entire production is what one of my professors would call "phenomenologically hot." Everything was distracting, rather than enlightening. Things that are phenomenologically hot on stage include babies, animals, water, fire, even actors with a certain type of charisma. (Maybe my UPS theatre kids can help explain this concept if they want) And the audience instinctively spends the time wondering if will the baby will cry, the animal will bite (or pee), or if the whole stage might go up in flames. That's how I ultimately feel about this production. Get the lion trainer handy and have plenty of fire extinguishers back stage. Figuratively of course.