On Thursday the 14th of September, I attended a new (Sept 9th) production of King Lear, starring Stacy Keach (of Mike Hammer, Ken Titus, and Cameron Alexander fame) in the title role. I was unaware, up to this point, that Keach was as accomplished a Shakespearean as he is, but apparently he has a long history of roles in productions of Shakespeare.
I will admit at the very beginning that I had never seen a production or film version of King Lear, as so my muscles of comparison will not be flexed very often in this review. I will say that I was familiar with the story, and boned up on some criticism of the work and its various productions before seeing it on Thursday.
King Lear is Robert Falls first Shakespearean production in 20 years, and I’m not sure that his sensibilities were dulled by his long hiatus, but he took an approach to Lear that is somewhat controversial, and mixed in its effects. It was modernized, as is popular with many productions, but lacked the Victorian elegance of Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet or Branagh’s Hamlet. Rather, as I suspected but later learned, the inspiration for all of the visual motifs for this particular production came from the Balkan conflict during the 1990s. The first bit of the play was splendorous in a campy, retrograde way—overdone gold and crimson decorations in Lear’s ‘palace,’ Lear himself showing up in a powder blue leisure suit and white sneakers—but much of the sets were set in squalor, either literal garbage when the fleeing party takes refuge in a dump (replete with garbage bags dropping from the ceiling), or debris-strewn battlefields.
Having learned of the Balkan influence from Falls in a Q&A session after the play, looking back upon my impressions is an easier task. Not merely the æsthetic influence, but also a certain political sensibility that I’m not sure was wholly appropriate for the play. There was a great deal of stage time devoted to dramatizing the war between France (and Cordelia) and Lear’s now-divided kingdom—one scene, which stretched on for many minutes, was nothing but a scene of the disposal of body-bagged corpses, all of which served as a wrapper for the death of the Earl of Gloucester, and which took the audience’s mind off the Earl and onto the ostensibly senseless and tragic death of a score of soldiers. The scene may of been poignant in a different context, but it felt out of place in Lear.
One other surprising aspect was the nudity, which—apart from perhaps Olivia Hussey—I am not accustomed to seeing in Shakespeare. First, Edgar qua Mad Tom emerged from a ‘hollow’ completely starkers, his Li’l Edgar flapping with each exaggerated step. Next, Keach himself stripped down to his bare ass, although he turned to the back of the stage so that the audience only saw his bare behind. I am not complaining about the nudity, per se, but after a few minutes nude, Edgar tied a shirt around his waist, and Lear was wrapped in a cloak and appeared in the next scene with his shirt and drawers on. As my professor said, if Falls was trying to be daring and edgy by introducing this nudity, he should have either been consistent or not done it at all.
The most important bit of nudity, however, was in the final, tragic scene, where Lear staggers on stage holding the dead body of Cordelia. In this instance, Cordelia was also completely nude, and then placed upon a table, titled toward the back so as not to bare her crotch to the audience. I will admit right now that seeing this actress (Laura Odeh) naked was not titillating in the least—rather, I thought that the effect achieved by her ‘beaten’ body, ostensibly cold and lonely on the table was very effective… and damning. The problem is that I’m not sure that’s quite the point. I know Falls was channeling some guilt about the Balkan conflict (and his professed ignorance of it while it was happening), but the ultimate scene of his Lear felt like an indictment and not a tragedy. Gone is the typical heart-rending moment of anguish of father over lost daughter, replaced by a harsh and accusatory coldness and nakedness. That harshness did not belong to the ending scene alone: the entire thing was characterized by very raw production values. Falls emphasized (created?) the pornographic, turning the two ‘evil’ sisters into raging sluts that had sex (not really) on stage; as well, the scenes of violence were brought to the fore, including a messy rendition of Gloucester’s eye-gouging, and the multitude of deaths at the end, which all seemed lost in a bloody cornucopia of carnage. After seeing one sister suffocate the other with a plastic bag and then blow her own brains out, Lear’s sudden death (heart attack?) over the body of Cordelia lost its impact, and the curtain dropped on a throbbing anticlimax.
In defense of the production, however, the acting was indeed superb: Keach was a magnificent, crufty old Lear—his work in TV obviously hasn’t ruined his Elizabethan chops. The supporting cast was also excellent, if perhaps the sisters were a bit overacted. Howard Witt was spectacular as the fool, and it was a very interesting choice by Falls to cast an old Jew as the Fool (a character which has seen more reinterpretation than any other), which gave him not only a dry wit, but also a sense of the Wandering Jew, as well.
Because it is fundamentally different from a typical Lear production without actually taking any real liberties with from script, Falls’ King Lear ends up floating somewhere between mere modernization and complete reinterpretation. I feel like it wasn’t able to completely define itself—Falls seemed proud of his take on it, but conciliatory in the sense that he had some degree of faithfulness to authentic reproductions of the piece. As for me, I didn’t quite feel like I was watching King Lear. The aim was too different: it missed my heart and hit elsewhere, spilling gall. I am more than capable of appreciating Falls’ Lear for its own merits, but I somehow feel a bit violated, as though the play was wrestled into an overly political piece, too far removed from Shakespeare’s ostensible aims.
If you get a chance, see it. It’s at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, and its production just began. I’d be fascinated to hear someone else’s take on it.