2016 sees a glut of King Lear productions, which our current exhibition in the SIL explores. LSA and PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, Sara Westh explores Lear’s enduring fascination.
The by now quite venerable Arden Shakespeare Lear characterises its subject as “a colossus at the centre of Shakespeare’s achievement as the grandest effort of his imagination.”
Whether a fan of the play or not one cannot deny the influence of Lear as an iconic moment of narrative and drama in our age, something that Kott’s praise of it as “above all others the Shakespearean play of our time” seems to bear out. Of course, the date of publication of Shakespeare Our Contemporary suggests that rather than being the sigil of one age in particular, Lear has, as the rest of the Shakespeare gang, shown an aptitude for eternity. Maybe Lear speaks to us because the divide between age and youth is always instantly recognisable as well as being infinitely adaptable; the issues that prompted Kott to claim a singularly powerful status for the mad king in the mad world, cut off from human kindness, suffering in a hell as much of his own making as created by the people closest to him, are issues of humanity, and they are no less poignant today.
As we once again embrace the heath for its familiar barrenness, the inevitability of Lear seems closer than ever before. Our world is growing old, the tempests that rage just outside the castle walls are all too real, and the twitterings of our Fool companion are a constant buzz in the back of our minds. When everything appears to spiral out of our control in spite of well-laid plans and best intentions, we all howl with Lear. Unlike the king, however, we know how the story ends.
Turning to the play itself, to the king that staggers across the stage rather than through our minds, its enduring influence can be traced in part to its history, and in part to the fascination it engenders among the audience. There is, apparently, something at once deeply satisfying and unsettling about the gradual destruction of the elderly, followed by the revival (and un-blinding) of everyone involved through the magic of applause. Freud and Lacan can probably offer very incisive analyses of the play, in particular its use of sharp objects, and Barthes and Derrida can beyond doubt oblige us with new worlds of verbal slippage and dead gods from within the lines. And while all of this forms part of the reason why Lear is mad again this year, there is almost certainly more to it than penetration, castration, repetition, and perpetuation in our communal cultural memory.
The reviews of this year’s offerings help us suck the marrow from the bone:
“Through Warrington, Lear’s madness is made at one with the storm […]. He emerges from it transformed: fragile, human, as authentic as Cordelia, whose love – and whose death – he movingly shares.”
“Pennington’s performance charts Lear’s course from overconfident folly to humbled self-knowledge via the storms of madness with moving craft, culminating in scenes of extraordinary loving tenderness, first with blinded Gloucester (Pip Donaghy) and then, heart-wrenchingly, with the hanged Cordelia (Beth Cooke).”
Michael Pennington is portraying Lear at Royal & Derngate, Northampton, while Don Warrington takes the king upon him at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Judging from the publicity photos, both productions visually evoke an era past, with costumes suggesting the 1930’s-40’s, and both show their protagonists descending into white shirts as they descend into madness.
Clare Brennan reviewed the two productions side by side for the Guardian and according to her description the two lead actors are comparably magnificent; both combine the air of death that clings to Lear’s shoulders like tar with tender moments of excruciating pain. Both portrayals she describes as “moving”.
Apart from the immediate meaning of emotions that transport us beyond the hum-drum every-day, and maybe even deposit us in that rare embrace of catharsis where our own problems fade into insignificance for a few, brief moments, until the lights go up again, and we once more set out across the heaths we spend our lives cultivating, there is a deeper sense of movement at play. Maybe the “moving” centre of Lear is what makes its particular calamity of so long life; the savage joy of witnessing inescapable suffering, sorrow of a magnitude that goes far beyond what any one of us can reasonably pretend to fathom, and yet witnessed from such a privileged point of view that every moment of the old man’s downfall is available to us in the full technicolour of our own senses.
Glenda Jackson will be portraying Lear at the Old Vic later this year, as will Antony Sher at the RSC. The Lears of 2016, then, are so far looking like an at least approximately representative model of the population. The only unifying feature is age: this year’s Lear must, apparently, be old. Perhaps the traditions that surround this theatrical sacrifice demand a certain stiffness in the joints and toughness in the sinews; an old actor’s offering, much as Hamlet belongs to the young, provided that Uncle Monty’s view of the world in Withnail and I is to be credited.
If the 2016 Lear productions are anything to go by, this is the age of the mad king, of the player who only too late realises that he is the star of his own tragedy. And as such it is, of course, the story of everyone alive. It is, unfortunately, a story we love to watch – in others as in ourselves. And we never start clapping until the lights go down.
Sara Marie Westh, LSA Shakespeare Institute Library
Brennan, Clare. “King Lear Review – Two Lears Acting up a Storm”. The Guardian. 10.04.2016. web 01.08.2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/apr/10/king-lear-royal-derngate-northampton-royal-exchange-manchester-review>.
Foakes, R.A. “Introduction” King Lear by William Shakespeare. Arden Shakespeare 3rd series. gen. eds. R. Proudfoot, A. Thompson, D.S. Kastan. Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1997.
Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Trans. Boleslaw Taborski. London: Routledge, 1988.
Aebischer, Pascale, Edward J. Esche, and Nigel Wheale (eds). Remaking Shakespeare: Performance Across Media, Genres, and cultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2003.
Burt, Richard (ed). Shakespeare after Mass Media. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002.
Henderson, Diana E. Collaborations with the Past : Reshaping Shakespeare across Time and Media. Ithaca; London: Cornell UP, 2006
Holland, Peter (ed). Shakespeare Survey 62: Close Encounters with Shakespeare’s Text. Cambridge: CUP, 2009.
Joughin, John J. Philosophical Shakespeares. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Kelley, Philippa. The King and I. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.
Lusardi, James and June Schlueter. Reading Shakespeare in Performance: King Lear. London, New Jersey, Ontario: U of Delaware P: Associated UP’s, 1991.
Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1966
Massai, Sonia. World-wide Shakespeares – Local Appropriations in Film and Performance. Oxon: Routledge, 2005.
Muir, Kenneth (ed). King Lear – Critical Essays. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.
— and Stanley Wells (eds). Aspects of King Lear. London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, Sydney: CUP, 1982.
Ogden, James and Arthur H. Scouten (eds). Lear from Study to Stage – Essays in Criticism. Madison; Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London: Associated UP’s, 1997.
Proudfoot, Richard (ed). Shakespeare : Text, Stage and Canon. London : Arden Shakespeare, 2001.
Sun, Emily. Succeeding King Lear. New York: Fordham UP, 2010.
Wagner, Matthew D. Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time. London and New York: Routledge, 2012.