The Wheel is Come Full Circle

Our director has been sharing video clips of Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother, a dance piece

centered around war, violence and political corruption. The dance sequences available online are, quite simply, beautiful, in a brutal, discomforting way. But as they relate to our vision of Lear, they’re especially revealing.

According to reviews online, the movement begins with a man ritualistically committing suicide, impaling himself through the stomach with a sword. The rest continues as follows, as told by a critic:

Cue the deafening scream of Shechter’s electronic score and a series of tableaux which appear and dissolve in the smoky light. Prisoners, terrified and abject, capering like monkeys. Determined scraps of folk-dance: out-takes, perhaps, from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. A sinister line of drummers in military tunics, their faces invisible in the half-dark, the crash and volley of their percussion obliterating all thought and dissent. A ranting demagogue, screaming from on high, his words indistinguishable. A rock band, its thundering riffs seemingly born of the military percussion. A wild-eyed front man. Dances of adulation and abandon, men and women shuddering with idealistic excitement and loss of self. Primed for obedience, duty and sacrifice.

This commentary reminded me of Jan Kott’s “King Lear and Endgame,” an article my director and I have discussed at length. These themes of hopelessness and despair, an overpowering sense of abandonment while our characters fruitlessly search for meaning — we don’t necessarily want to infuse all of these concepts in our own production, but they’re provocative nonetheless.

As much as I enjoyed watching these videos, a few specific images caught my attention: Circles and lighting.

“King Lear” is rife with circle imagery. Eyes, “these late eclipses of the sun and moon,” the wheel of fortune, even the constant return to nothingness — all these motifs allude to circles and emptiness. Some initial design plans used circles, and although the current vision involves a mostly barren stage, we’re still using this concept of nothingness for the actors’ playground.

We’re planning to evoke specific settings mostly with lighting; the hovel, for example, will come alive with a simple square rectangle reflected on the ground. The first scene may involve a lit map of England on the stage floor.

It’s a simple idea, but an effective one. Many contemporary Lear designers have opted for more minimalistic concepts, and it makes perfect sense. Lear’s journey is humanizing and humbling; he strips down to nothing as he reaches enlightenment and only recognizes his misdeeds when he is left at the mercy of the elements. The image of suffering, old man on a naked stage is far more disarming and eerie than one of the same man surrounded by things.

And so our players will bring their story to life, without the help of trees or castle walls, much in the same way that Political Mother lets is dancers physically evoke a sense of place and time.

At the end of Political Mother, “the whole show speedily reverses, as if someone had hit a rewind button.” In the same way, Lear’s story ends where it begins. Edmund says it best:

“Th’ hast spoken right, ’tis true.
The wheel is come full circle, I am here.” (V.iii.171)

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