Saturday 19 May 2012

Belarusian King Lear – The Globe

Belarus Free Theatre have one outstanding USP – they have a good claim on the title “the most endangered theatre company in the world”. Banned in their homeland, they have been threatened with imprisonment, rape and torture, by Alexander Lukashenko's dictatorship.

I have to confess, I wasn't hugely bowled over by their scratch performance of Minsk 2011 at last year's Edinburgh Fringe, but it was a scratch performance, so allowances can be made – even if almost everyone else decided to review the unimpeachable integrity rather than the slightly sloppy undergraduate devised piece aesthetic.

Nevertheless, apart from Eimuntas Nekrosius's Hamlet from Lithuania, thanks to massive celebrity support in Britain BFT are about the most famous company performing in the Globe to Globe season. And they've been given King Lear in recognition of this fact, one imagines. It is possibly the most poetic of all Shakespeare's tragedies. Perhaps even the most tragic.

I was about ten minutes late to this evening's performance. As I entered an grey-haired man in shabby modern dress was sitting in a wheelchair having a conversation with a violent-looking shaven-headed youth in vest and military boots. The old man is pissing from his chair into a bowl. This is Gloucester and Edmund.

That tells you about all you need to know about the style. It's fast: they'd already whizzed through the whole of the 332-line first scene in which Lear divides his Kingdom in the ten minutes before I arrived. It's scatological: Gloucester's first act after relieving himself was to grab Edmund's head and grind it into his crotch to indicate his anger at what Edmund had just told him. And it's urgent: this urgency is mostly drawn from the company's “poor theatre” aesthetic and their mad dash to bring King Lear in at about two hours plus interval.

There is a generalised contemporaneity to it – Goneril and Regan are dressed in the now-regulation high heels, fur coats and tight mini-dresses of many post-Soviet bloc theatre traditions. The boots look like those issued as standard to the Belarusian army, but Lear is wearing an enormous shiny metal gauntlet on his right hand – perhaps a symbol of his kingship, but surely also a nod the the play's original medieval setting. In the main this is a Lear of suit jackets over dirty white vests, quicky stripped away to three examples of the de rigueur full frontal male nudity for the madness on the heath.

To cut the play so short, there must be innovation and cuts aplenty. Until the end, I think pretty much every soliloquy has been excised (this seems to be a common way for G2G companies to bring down running times – although the results of those which have remained have been fascinating). The action is fast and frenetic, the language into which the text has been rendered is demotic, not poetic. And the characters run about cursing one another in order to get through the plot.

The ensemble's chief virtue is energy and invention and they attack the play like angry clowns jabbering, accompanied by onstage piano and saxophone played from the balcony. The storm is played with Lear atop a large blue tarpaulin as buckets of water are thrown at him as he rages. The climactic battle between England and France is played out under a red tarpaulin with punches flying out on all sides like those cartoon fights in dust clouds.

This is a compelling, watchable King Lear. There is always something new happening. Gone are the solitary figures pacing their lonely sterile promontories doing nothing but telling us what their plans are, what they think and how they feel. Instead, no one gets a minute to themselves as the action rushes onwards. The downside of this is that we do lose here all sense of the play's tragedy. We don't really get to know the characters well enough to start to feel for them.

That said, in this production, you get the impression that they'd spurn our sympathy anyway. In a lot of ways, if this King Lear seems like the least tragic you've ever seen, it's because none of the characters ever even give way to self-pity. They're too wired. It is only at the (very sudden) end that Lear delivers something like his mourning speech over Cordelia's topless corpse and yet even here he is flanked by the entire company, alive or dead, standing, watching and singing that in that jagged, haunting Eastern European style also used by Teatr ZAR or Voix Bulgares.

It doesn't feel as if Belarus Free Theatre have taken the play and used it to say anything about the situation in their own troubled country. Instead, the political act here is the fact of their being here at all. They've certainly inhabited the play and made it theirs. This is King Lear as a strange, savage act. A relentless unfolding of brutality. As such, while not what I was expecting, that feels like more than enough of a statement.

While writing this piece I had a look back to see what other King Lears I'd seen. I seem to have reviewed more-or-less a Lear a year since 2006 (apart from when I was in Berlin).

The Russian one at the Barbican

Trevor Nunn/Ian Mckellen for the RSC

The Dominic Dromgoole/David Calder one at the Globe

The Rupert Goold / Pete Postlethwaite one for Headlong at the Young Vic (Six stars - Time Out)

and Jeremy Hardinham's Unfolding King Lear A Model

It's quite interesting (to me, at least) to see how much the way I write, or maybe my tone, has changed (also, I've got better at not making clangers like that first review where my memory of the plot is really quite embarrassing).

(all photographs copyright Simon Kane)

1 comment:

James said...

The dividing of the kingdom scene was absolutely fantastic, so it's a real shame you missed it. Lear emerged after all others and at an intensely slow pace, wheeling his suitcase on an old style pram (was it an old style pram? It sort of looked like one, except with the bit for the baby missing) and wearing a ridiculous long grey wig. He threw off the wig and opened the suitcase to reveal it was full of dirt. (the same dirt, presumably as filled the mugs of the dying characters) Goneril and Regan then proceeded to do show tunes symbolising their love for Lear, who in turn rewarded each with the earth from his suitcase. They came forward, held out their dresses (not the same ones as they wore throughout the play) and he filled them with earth. When they bundled the dresses up to protect their inheritance, it looked like they were pregnant. In fact, Albany even wen so far as to stroke his wife's bump when she returned to her seat as if it were a baby. The plastic jar that Goneril had in her next scene with flowers growing out of it was the vessel she used to ferry the rest of her land away.

Cordelia's nothing was first a nothing and then - at the urging of others - a song and dance that mocked her sisters' own.

I thought Lear's final entrance particularly poignant in the light of his first; he brought Cordelia's body before us in exactly the same way as he had done his kingdom in the beginning, the same slow pace, even the same vessel for ferrying her along. To me, it symbolised Lear's changed priorities and developing sense of humanity; where once he had valued his kingdom above all, now it was his lost daughter.

In the wider context of the play, where before the kingdom had been the earth he carried in his suitcase, now the kingdom had become the people who lived in it; with each death, a little bit of that earth was lost and the country diminished. In that sense, I do think the performance had been informed by their status and the relationship between the Belarusian people and Lukashenko & his government; because a country isn't just a plot of land, but a body of people, the loss of any of whom diminishes that country.

For me, that made it a profoundly human piece, an extension of one of Shakespeare's defining themes; the nature of kingship and the relationship of king to man and God. In losing one's crown, one finds one's humanity (cf Richard II as much as Lear) and I think that gives it its weight as a tragedy; it's only with their deaths that we can fully appreciate this relationship between king, kingdom, and people.

Gosh, that was terribly long-winded and somewhat incoherent, but hopefully it all makes sense!