Is this the promised end?

No, it’s not. Sunday’s matinee is over and the light towers have been demolished, but we’re not done thinking about King Lear. We’re doing a postmortem of the production in Thursdays’ class (we’re enjoying a much-needed break today) but right now, I’d like to touch on my overall thoughts:

  • Lear in his furred robe and crown, establishing his authoritative position in Act I Scene I.

    Lear in his furred robe and crown, establishing his authoritative position in Act I Scene I.

    Our concept: From day one, Jason said this play was about power. He wanted each character to fill the space with his or her notions of authority and identity as a way of dealing with the kingdom’s sudden state of chaos. I think that came across marvelously. The first scene highlighted Lear’s authority — his subjects were arranged before him, and his costume (“robed and furr’d gowns,” anyone?) indicated he was accustomed to a life of extravagance. By the end of the play, he was in a simple tunic, completely removed from the image of him as a great king in scene one. 

  • The world of the play: 800 BC is a tricky concept to convey to an audience. We didn’t hit anyone too heavily with this setting, which I think was an effective choice. Rather, we left the space mostly empty and relied on costumes to evoke a sense of time and place. The idea of Iron Age England helped establish how closely the society was connected with nature and religion; our Doctor was a tribal shaman who blessed
    This gesture was used throughout as a reference to the gods and society's reliance on ritual and nature; here, servants ask for mercy from the gods as the curtain closes for intermission.

    This gesture was used throughout as a reference to the gods and society’s reliance on ritual and nature; here, servants ask for mercy from the gods as the curtain closes for intermission.

    Cordelia, her suitors and Lear in a ritualistic dance before the play began. She later comforted Cordelia by reminding her of nature’s ability to heal and revive: “There is means, madam:/Our foster-nurse of nature is repose” (IV.iv.12). When Lear referenced Hecate in scene one, everyone in court raised their hands over their heads, a gesture that we ended up using throughout as a plea for mercy. Kent’s line to Lear in this scene “thou swear’st thy gods in vain” had a particular resonance; it was blasphemous, a disregard for Lear’s divine connection with the gods. 

  • Our Lear was largely a sympathetic character.

    Our Lear was largely a sympathetic character.

    Lear: Our Lear was, by and large, the most sympathetic Lear I’ve ever seen or read about. He had his furious, cruel moments of course (his curse on Goneril was particularly chilling) but he was usually likable. His interactions with his courtly favorites, Caius and the Fool, were especially tender. It gave the impression that his blind rage in the first scene was unexpected, a rare moment in which his desire for absolute power blinded him from seeing reason. It made his tragic journey a heartwrenching, relatable experience for the audience.

  • Edgar, learning and growing as Poor Tom.

    Edgar, learning and growing as Poor Tom.

    The “good guys”: Edgar, Kent, Albany, Gloucester, Cordelia the Fool — I think all of our actors did a superb job avoiding the trap that so many fall into: being boring. They brought humor to their characters and highlighted their darker moments, making their journeys memorable. Cordelia and Gloucester particularly run the risk of being forgettable in this play, but our actors managed to establish themselves and their motivations; Cordelia was both goodnatured and forceful, and Gloucester’s repentance was painfully clear. Edgar’s self-discovery was engaging and clear. Whereas in some productions he is used more as a foil for Lear than anything else, our Edgar’s character arc was one of the most significant in the play. In Act One Scene Two, he was sheepish and naive  but by his final duel with Edmund, he was prepared to lead the kingdom back into order and peace. The “bad guys”: Edmund, Goneril, Cornwall and Regan (I’m not counting Oswald because I still have such a soft spot for him) weren’t just bloodthirsty villains. They were nuanced, complex characters with purpose and drive. The actors playing the sisters were particularly commendable, I think, for finding ways to differentiate themselves. While many productions lump them together, our Goneril and Regan were distinctly different; Goneril was power-hungry and manipulative (arguably obsessive compulsive, as well) while Regan was more materialistic and immature (although she developed significantly after discovering a sexual and violent lust during Gloucester’s blinding). Edmund was notable in that he wasn’t purely evil. In the final scene, he was actually sympathetic; he died in Edgar’s lap and held his brother’s hand as he gasped, “some good I mean to do,/ Despite of mine own nature.”

  • Yes, the little guys matter, as evidenced by the servant who kills Cornwall.

    Yes, the little guys matter, as evidenced by the servant who kills Cornwall.

    The “little guys”: Oftentimes, the knights, servants and attendants blend together in productions of King Lear (they were completely interchangable in Peter Brook’s Lear where they were used as a collective representation of society rather than individuals). But as we noticed during rehearsals, the knights and servants oftentimes define a scene. In Act One Scene Four, for example, the Fool’s moments onstage were flat and uninspired until the knights began interacting with him. Their reactions to Goneril’s insults later in the scene shifted the mood from lighthearted to foreboding. While some productions choose to cut some of the servants’ lines (the Captain in Act Five Scene Three and the servants who help Gloucester after his blinding), we highlighted these characters. Ultimately, they will be the subjects who are going to lead England out of chaos under Edgar’s leadership.

It’s been a long, wearisome semester. But somehow, we pulled off the play that was once considered impossible to stage. We’re tired, cranky, terrified of all the work we’ve had to put off during tech week — but we did it.

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Our preparation stands/ In expectation of them

As much as I regret not finding time to post an update until just now, there’s something deliciously satisfying about returning to my blog after the madness of tech week to finally announce that THIS IS IT.
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We’re here. Tonight is the first of four performances, and from the sounds of our house manager, we can expect some pretty full houses. Programs are printed, my lobby display is finished, the blood has been mixed, eyeballs are chilling in the refrigerator, reservations are flooding in, notes have been given…and we’re ready for that red curtain to rise.

We had a few rocky dress rehearsals, which was to be expected. We had a lot to sync up during tech week — costumes and quick changes, lighting and sound cues (especially that pesky storm), music, entrances and exits, fight calls — but last night, it clicked. Suddenly, characters were clearer and bigger than ever. Actors displayed a true confidence in their dialogue, and for the first time conveyed how well they understood their characters and their lines. They made bold, spontaneous, often ingenious choices in inflection and gesture, and when the curtain went down for intermission, my director and I were dying to see what happened next — and we’ve read the play innumerable times.

This was a last-minute kind of week for me as well. My lobby display posters were printed last week, and after locating display easels and putting on some finishing touches, they’re officially ready for show. The program was passed from one person to another to another, but we finally have a hefty box of them sitting in the lobby for this evening. I’ve spent rehearsal time observing the same scenes over and over again, searching for ways to convey meaning to the audience more clearly and jotting down questions for Jason and the actors to think about as they try to avoid that tech rehearsal rut.

Last night, my notes were about as lengthy as usual, but the majority of them started with “Great job….” or “I LOVE.” I’m pretty sure the actors are sick and tired of hearing my overzealous laughter at each of the Fool’s gags, so…

All we need to now is an audience.

Still need some convincing? Check out photos from last night:

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Fit for your o’er-looking

Our official trailer:

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Dissolutions of ancient amities

As we near April, my dramaturgical duties have been evolving from collecting ideas and images into more concrete, production-related responsibilities. These include: observing rehearsals and going over notes with my director; running lines with actors and discussing character choices; shamelessly telling everyone I know to see the play, both in person and via Facebook; developing program material, including a dramaturgy note; and creating a lobby display.

This last task has proven more challenging than I anticipated. After narrowing down what I wanted to convey to the audience — concepts of power and an overarching concept of the world of the play — and how to do so — through images — I found myself backtracking to the some of my earlier dramaturgical notes. Jason’s very first “in” to the play was Power, and from there, Iron Age England. He chose 800 BC as the world of the play not only because that’s when the original Leir is said to have reigned, but because of the nature of that world: it was a time of discovery, when people based their entire universe off of gods they couldn’t see, when violence and brute strength determined a person’s worth. These concepts tied in to the plays biggest themes: power, man’s purpose in the universe, identity, a dependance on and fascination with nature, religion and ritual.

So I went back to one of my first resources — the British Museum — and found a page that I apparently missed during my earlier hunting. Here are some illuminating facts from the website about life in Iron Age society:

  • The Iron Age British religion did not need images of their gods in human or animal form.
  • Britons did not worship in temples or special religious buildings. Rather, the evidence shows they worshipped on the farm or out in the landscape.
  • Many discovered Iron Age artifacts are thought to have been offerings to gods, spirits or ancestors. Rivers, lakes and bogs were the sites of offerings of weapons; animals and everyday objects such as pots, querns and tools were offered at houses and farmyards, while offerings of torcs or chariot harnesses were made at land away from farms. Humans could be offered as well. Many of these rites were probably carried out by Druids, the special priests in Britain and France at the end of the Iron Age.
  • Iron Age Britain has often been considered a particularly warlike period because of the many hillforts and weapons. 
  • The finest examples of British La Tène or Early Celtic art are often weapons, such as the Kirkburn sword or Battersea shield. La Tène is a style of decoration using abstract curving patterns, which spread rapidly from western Europe from around 450 BC. Few objects used in daily life were ever decorated with these designs. Instead it was reserved for metal objects such as torcs, sword scabbards or mirrors. 
    The splendor and expense of these weapons, and the metal parts of the chariots used by their owners, show the importance attached to being a warrior in the Iron Age.
  • Many warriors might have been aristocrats, chiefs or kings. The few outstanding objects, such as the Great Torc from Snettisham, were probably signs of their owners’ great rank and power. But not every Iron Age society was so hierarchical. In many, the leading members of most families may have had the status of a warrior and owned fine swords.
  • I also noticed a lot of circle imagery while sifting through Iron Age artifacts and pictures — the circular settlements and hillforts, the spiral designs on shields and swords, the simple, round houses. We are using a lot of circle imagery in our Lear production, and although ours is for more metaphorical, thematic purposes, it’s pretty amazing that we can find traces of it all the way back in 800 BC. 

These facts reveal a lot of parallels between Leir’s 800 BC world and our interpretation of Lear’s kingdom: a dependance on ritual and nature; a materialism, a desire for excess and extravagance, as evidenced by the intricate care taken to craft the Iron Age weaponry; a strict hierarchical system, relying heavily on physical strength and power. Here are some images from the Museum’s online gallery. The captions are taken from the website’s artifact descriptions. Happy hunting!

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Soon may I hear and see him!

 

Two weeks of rehearsals to go, and here’s our official production poster:
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Sonnet 66

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

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Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gavest thy golden one away

SkullCrown

An Iron Age headdress from the British Museum. With a human skull.

Speaking of crowns…I saw this artifact while visiting the British Museum over winter break, but I couldn’t get a good picture. I found one while revisiting Iron Age England research just now, and I found out that this crown was discovered WITH A HUMAN SKULL.

Okay, they aren’t positive that it was a crown per say. But it was a headdress of sorts. It was found with the head of a warrior, buried with his sword and shield. According to the British Museum, the bronze band “is decorated with La Tène-style patterns. The metal was worn directly on the head and not padded or strengthened with leather; when found impressions of human hair were left in the corrosion on the inner surface.

“Also found in the grave were: an iron sword with bronze scabbard fittings and suspension rings for holding the sword on a belt; bronze parts from a wooden shield, and a bronze brooch decorated with applied coral studs.

“No other head dresses from Iron Age Europe have been found in a grave….Were these Iron Age ‘crowns’ also only worn by priests (druids) in the Iron Age? If so, was this person a warrior and a priest?”

I talked in my last post about what Lear’s crown of weeds looks like. But this is another prop to consider: his royal crown. He says to his sons-in-laws in the first scene, after banishing Kent and Cordelia: “Only we still retain/ The name, and all the additions to a king;/ The sway, revenue, execution of the rest,/ Beloved sons, be yours: which to confirm,/ This coronet part betwixt you” (I.i.151). Is he talking about his crown? The crown meant for Cordelia? Does he literally break it in half? If it was his crown, what does it look like? Does he wear a crown after this scene at all now that he’s given up his land?

We have a lot of decisions to make — some of which we’ve already figured out — but the main point is that Lear’s crown is significant. It’s a symbol of power, so it’s important to consider what it looks like and how characters interact with it.

Who knows? Maybe it looks something like this poor warrior’s headdress.

 

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