What penalty does an artist pay for telling the truth? I am not speaking about the penalties paid by ordinary people like you and me (or at least me). We see those prices paid constantly, in Kosovo and Chile, in Iran and Islamabad. I mean, instead, the costs assessed against those men and women whose skills are so great they can make the very stars bark, and who use those skills to make us look at things we are unwilling to see.
Here’s the answer, shorn of euphemism: we shun them. We ignore them, and we turn our faces away from what they reveal to us. We dilute the work, or corrupt it with changes, or resolutely refuse to stage it. This is true even when the artist is Bill Shakespeare, the greatest of all playwrights. He who wrote of fairies and sprites and wild, coincidental happy endings wrote one play so blindingly honest, so supernally blunt that no act of denial is sufficient to disguise its meaning.
The name of this play is King Lear. Audiences hated it. It was performed only once during Shakespeare’s life, and for two hundred and thirty years afterward it was produced, if at all, with a phony, optimistic tacked-on ending. Even today, most productions obscure, rather than deliver, the truths of this play.
The truths are these: virtue is no guarantor of peace. The natural human impulse is to chaos and entropy, not progress and civilization. People are less reliable than you think. We are everywhere in danger, and all our good and mighty works are not enough to protect us against calamity. Only power protects us.
Thank God for other artists, such as director Robert Falls and Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who are willing to show us the truth of this story full in the face. Falls’ brilliant choice is to reimagine Lear in the former Yugoslavia, in the early nineties. In Falls’ Lear, we are in a land so dangerous that the man sitting next to you might at any moment take out a knife and stab you in the back – as a political statement, or a revival of some ethnic or genetic hatred, or for the sheer pleasure of seeing blood come out of your body. We are in a place where the kingdom is about to be divided into three, but is constantly in danger of disintegrating even further – to duchies, principalities, city-states, houses, families, and beyond, to war and chaos. The setting is instantly recognizable, and the point is immediately apparent. If we have any confusion, the sight of a reveler (Norman Aronovic) dancing to hip-hop while waving a Kalashnikov will clarify things for us. We all remember what Kosovo was, less than twenty years ago: it was the place where dreams went to die.
Some productions try to turn Lear into a complex series of events but it is not. It is very plain. King Lear (Stacy Keach), a charismatic and successful ruler, has gathered his friends to announce his abdication. He will divide his Kingdom among his three beloved daughters, Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotton), Regan (Kate Arrington) and Cordelia (Laura Odeh) and go out into the nation as a common man, requiring only a retinue of a hundred knights. He playfully pledges to give the largest portion to the daughter who loves him the most. In response, Goneril and Regan each emit an oleaginous lake of flattery, which the King accepts as his due. When Cordelia pledges no more than the love due him, though, he disinherits her, and sends her, dowerless, to marry the King of France (Aubrey Deeker). His flattering daughters, once in control, immediately conspire to strip Lear of his retinue, then his titles, then his honors, and finally his life.
In the meantime, Lear’s closest friend, the Earl of Gloucester (Ed Gero) has problems of his own. His bastard son Edmund (Jonno Roberts) designs to overthrow his half-brother Edgar (Joaquín Torres) in the eyes of their father. Edmund forges a letter under his brother’s signature, fomenting rebellion and patricide. Edmund succeeds in driving Edgar away, and thereafter betrays his father, who is desperately attempting to save Lear’s life, to Regan and her rapacious husband Cornwall (Chris Genebach). After that he betrays Cornwall, and Regan, and anyone within reach, and we realize that in this sad and twisted land the way to power and safety is through the killing fields.
Falls’ vision of this tragic kingdom animates his production throughout, and helps to solve both difficult line reads and difficult characters. I’ll give just one example of the former. Early in the play, Lear announces his retirement from the throne with an uncharacteristically mawkish line: “’tis our fast intent/To shake all cares and business from our age;/Conferring them on younger strengths, while we/Unburthen’d crawl toward death.” It seems a strange thing to come out of the mouth of so vigorous king. Nontheless, in most productions, Lear will sigh out this line, and you can almost hear the cellos in the background. But here, Keach immediately follows the line with an immense cackle of laughter. “No”, he says, and for emphasis he takes out his pistol and fires it at the high ceiling, bringing down an impressive quantity of plaster. Once again, we realize that we are in the wild, wild East, where no one crawls to death – they dance toward it to a hip-hop beat, with the supplemental music of an AK-47 in the background.
Lear is one of the most difficult roles in all Shakespeare. The actor must make him convincingly charismatic, so that we understand that he has been a great King. He must also make him sympathetic enough so that we can still love him after he denounces Cordelia, and so that he can break our hearts as he loses his mind. Keach succeeds in the latter task, which is the more important one, even if he does not quite achieve the former. His is a peppery Lear, full of purpose while he wears his crown but impotent and useless without it. We come to understand, in Keach’s portrayal of the man, that the Fool (Howard Witt) is right: Lear’s mistake was not, as traditional interpretations would have it, in disinheriting Cordelia. It was in surrendering power at all. As King, Lear was a great man; as a father expecting his daughters to abide by the terms of his abdication, Lear is a fool.
In general, though, Falls makes his virtuous characters subdued, and amps up his villains, thus underscoring Shakespeare’s insight into the charisma of evil. Falls’ spin on the play makes mild villains dangerous and turns dangerous characters into walking thermonuclear bombs. For example, Goneril’s husband Albany (Andrew Long) is usually played as a cautious man of good intention, browbeaten by his wife, aware that he is on the wrong side of right but unwilling to do anything about it until it is almost too late. Falls, and Long, make this Albany as fearsome as the killer Long played in Frozen. He flings Goneril around the stage like a rag doll, and she must thus sing her stinging retorts from a prone position. As for the fierce Cornwall, Falls has Genebach play him as a man who the Soprano family would reject as too violent and unpredictable.
Keach as Lear is supported by truly outstanding work from the principal subordinate characters, Gero as Gloucester, Steve Pickering as Kent, and Martin-Cotton and Arrington as Goneril and Regan respectively. Gero, whose superb performances have brightened the Washington stage for years, makes Gloucester deeply and richly human. Gloucester is an important character, in that he has none of the flaws which derive from Lear’s kingly ego, but is fooled by his child just as easily. Gero makes him transparent to us, and thus tragic. Pickering gets every element of the prickly Kent right – his honesty, his loyalty, his fierceness, his impulsiveness, his human and sympathetic heart. It is a bravura performance, and it helps to knit the play together. As for the treacherous daughters, they are all arrogance and tawdry sexuality, moving seamlessly from obsequiousness to murderousness. The stunning, unscripted conclusion to their merciless machinations is one of the show’s best moments.
Edmund is one of the few roles in Shakespeare (Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus is the only other one I can think of) in which the villain is allowed to be completely over the top. Cleverly, this is the one villain Falls puts under restraints. Roberts plays a businesslike Edmund, whose eye is on the prize even when he’s having sex with the King’s two treacherous daughters. It leaves us with a chilling thought: in a land as hot-blooded as Lear’s Serbia, it is the cold-blooded leader who comes out on top.
In fact, nearly every decision made in this superb production helps to enhance our understanding of the story. The decision to set the play in the late twentieth century amplifies the consequentiality of the story immensely: we simply could not have this much bloodshed if we only had swords with which to administer it. The final scene features the women of Dover, looking precisely like the women of Kosovo, dragging the bodies of their husbands and brothers and lovers and children to be buried. There are so many of them that the medicos cannot throw them in the burial pit fast enough. It is heartbreaking to watch, and impossible to imagine except in the presence of rocket and mortar fire. (As an example of Falls’ fantastic attention to detail, some of the women cross themselves in the style of Western Catholicism and others use the Orthodox Sign of the Cross, adding another source and level of conflict to this misery-drunk land.) On the other hand, the dance scenes, full of apocalyptic gaiety, give us another aspect of this desperate existence: a population prepared for the oblivion of death also embraces the oblivion of drink, crack-smoking and uninhibited movement. (Synetic alumnus Dan Istrate, who also has an excellent fight scene with Cornwall and Regan, is the dance consultant).
It should not surprise you that the stagecraft is superb and that Walt Spangler’s sets are absolutely magnificent, both in their technical excellence (I cannot imagine how he got an entire junkyard to drop from the ceiling, or managed to get the busted cars to stand vertically) and their sensitivity. We see huge posters of Lear from the days of his youth which are actually posters of Keach, from the days of his youth. I also liked Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes, with the single exception of a garish suit which Edgar, without explanation, wears for his initial encounter with his dastardly half-brother. (Thereafter, Edgar wears no costume at all for several minutes.)
The play begins with a moving original song praising Lear’s far-sightedness in bringing the country together. (The music is uncredited but Richard Woodbury is the sound designer.) It reminds us that King Lear is a story about vision: Lear’s failure to recognize his daughters’ flattery; Gloucester’s inability to suss out the forgery; Lear, unable to recognize the true identity of an old ruffian who seeks to join his service; Gloucester, not seeing his own son, standing in rags next to him in the dark. But it is hard, and unpleasant, to see clearly.
Part of Shakespeare’s genius was that he understood his market, and he never wrote anything like Lear again. Our culture, which grew from his, continues to love our fairy-tale endings, which explains many of our entertainments and much of our politics. But perhaps we can draw some comfort from the large and enthusiastic audience which greeted this production on opening night. We may at last be ready to look at our condition, and ourselves, honestly.
by William Shakespeare
directed by Robert Falls
produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
reviewed by Tim Treanor