Zombie posts all this week while I am in Germany giving a paper, drinking beer and not eating sausage! I’ll respond to comment as soon as I can.
Seeing King Lear staged leaves you dazed and a bit confused. It’s one of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedies. Benedict Cumberbatch recently described his and director Lyndsey Turner’s vision of an intergenerational conflict in Hamlet, whereby the younger generation bears the brunt of their elders’ sins. In Lear, it’s the opposite: the elders Lear and Gloucester are brutalized by their own children.
Lear is not often presented, and for those outside the cultural capitals, opportunities to see any of Shakespeare’s tragedies are limited. I was an occasional theatergoer through my twenties and thirties, and a more devoted one thereafter, but Great Lakes Theater’s current version of Lear was my first.
Even as a young person, I felt the power of the language on paper. It’s almost impossible not to. Onstage it is even more mesmerizing:
You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
If it be you that stir these daughters’ hearts
Against their father, fool me not so much
To bear it tamely; touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks.
We sat in the second row, and in front of us was a couple, a woman in her 20s whom I’ll call “Jessica,” and a much older man who (it seems) was not her father. During the first half, the young woman fidgeted continuously. She couldn’t sit still. The pair occupied themselves eating Skittles, spilling Skittles on the floor, nudging each other and giggling at the serious parts. At the intermission, Jessica stood up and said to Sugar Daddy, “It’s been two hours and I haven’t understood a word they said. Let’s get out of here.”
We devoutly wished they would betake themselves to the crows. But they returned to their seats, and during the second half, something strange happened. They became engrossed in the story. The Bard’s Elizabethan English was no longer a barrier. Jessica began to sniffle when old, mad, pitiful Lear was put to bed in his hovel on the heath, and Sugar Daddy took her hand in his. Such is the power of Shakespeare’s genius.
The storm scene was the highlight for me. It’s when the foolish, imperious Lear is humbled, not by the scheming of his daughters, but by the realization that even a king is nothing more than a mere human being, vulnerable and frail before the elements. Storms make no exceptions for kings.
Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
Gloucester’s son Edgar, in disguise as the naked madman “poor Tom,” serves to illustrate Lear’s point:
Thou art the thing itself:
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,
forked animal as thou art.
Edgar was played by the Great Lakes’ own J. Todd Adams. Now, J. Todd and I go way back. I remember him as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (2012) and as an athletic Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing (2013). And who could forget his sexy Caliban from The Tempest last year? J. Todd always gets the roles where the character has to take his shirt off.
Edgar was not depicted nude, as Shakespeare’s text seems to suggest, but in a wee pair of cut off shorts. The pathos was increased because his body was covered with bleeding scratches from the thorns of the heath.
Dare I hope for a Great Lakes version of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein (in which Benedict Cumberbatch famously bared all)?
I think J. Todd would be up for it.
The theme of naked vulnerability to the cruelties of the world (and other humans) is as much apparent in Lear as in Frankenstein, but Lear focuses on the travails of old age rather than those of birth. The average age of the audience was distinctly senior (with the exception of Jessica), and I wondered what the eldest among them thought of the play. Surely it’s an example of a text one cannot fully appreciate until later in life… yet Shakespeare wrote it in his early 40s.
Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither.
Ripeness is all.