Friday, 26 February 2010

King Lear

King Lear is coming to our town (as opposed to Our Town coming to our town - it isn't, but it will be in Sydney later in the year, and I'm looking forward to it even though I don't agree that the play is, as Andrew Upton says on the STC website, 'a moving interrogation of the American Dream and the shadow of mortality'; I disagree partly because I think using 'interrogation' in that way is an indicator of wooly thinking and an affront to all English speakers [right up there with having 'issues' 'around' things and 'privileging' things - I have to go away now and lie down for a bit, ugh] and partly because I think 'the American Dream' is a meaningless cliche.)
But back to King Lear. I spent years and years without ever getting a single chance to see King Lear. There are fashions in Shakespeare (and, indeed, in literature generally - none of my children ever studied Keats at school, for example, although no doubt that will change, thanks to the film Bright Star) and if one of the plays is out of favour, you can wait decades for it to be put on at the theatre. But in the end it is rehabilitated and before you know where you are the formerly shunned work is elbowing all the others off the stage.
Currently Lear is the play being smiled on by theatre management. I first became aware of its new popularity when the RSC did a production in 2007, in which Ian McKellen famously took off his underpants. He must have thought this added something to his interpretation of Lear - and in a way it did, if distracting large chunks of the audience with alarming thoughts about what would happen to them if McKellen ever took a shine to them could be said to be a plus (mysteriously, McKellen did hint in a New Yorker article that he might have been wearing an extra large prosthetic - although he didn't explain his reason for doing that.) A few months later the Globe Theatre did the play, with John Calder making a much better job of Lear, while keeping most of his clothes on. And now the Bell Shakespeare Company is putting it on, with John Bell in the title role.
I love the Bell Shakespeare Company. About ten years ago they did the worst Antony and Cleopatra I've ever seen - the set was unspeakable and the costumes straight out of Abigail's Party - but generally their productions - although possibly concentrating marginally too much on spectacle at the expense of language (not really my view but one expressed by some of the more learned members of my family) are marvellous. Even so I'm hesitant about going to Lear this time. The thing is, do I want to be harrowed again? Do I want to sit through another ineluctable tumble into misery? Do I actually want to witness tragedy any more? I can face another Antony and Cleopatra, because in that the disaster is outside of the protagonists' hands, as they are overcome by carnal passion, but I'm not sure I'm up for Othello and Macbeth and Lear these days. They are all stories of poor decisions, missed opportunities, misunderstandings. There's a sense that everything could have been easily avoided - the characters are not swept away by something, they simply make a few mistakes. If the audience just yells 'Look behind you' loud enough, it should all turn out all right - 'Look Lear, look at your daughter, she's grimacing when you're not looking,' 'Hey Othello, look at Iago, his face is twisted with bitterness and spite.'
I've never been much good at tragedy anyway, but now I'm out of adolescence (to put it mildly) I'm no longer certain I need reminders that we humans are to the gods 'as flies to wanton boys'. Experience has told me that often enough already, unfortunately. And I'm not sure I can sit through another eye-gouging either. At the Globe, the scene was so bloody that someone actually fainted when one of the 'jellies' shot across the stage. ('How wet', said a woman near me in the audience, her cut-glass accent carrying across the auditorium as the fainting woman hit the ground.)
What worries me too is that the new Bell Shakespeare production, according to The(sydney)magazine (and can one really take anything a publication with a ridiculous title like that tells us?) is taking 'its cues from Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel "The Road"'. Hang on a minute, a Shakespeare production needs 'cues' from Cormac McCarthy? Shakespeare needs help from - yes, the world has definitely turned upside down.

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