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:
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.