As I mentioned in my last post, King Lear is very often (much too often in my opinion) compared to climbing a mountain, a summit that every actor must overcome before he can be considered “great.” But what is a female actress’ equivalent Everest? Shakespeare’s plays are lauded for the complexity of his characters, but out of his most memorable, only a handful are female. Some frustrated female Bard-lovers stage his work with all-female casts, an offset to the all-male acting companies Shakespeare worked among (if you’ll recall my post about Julius Caesar, which unfortunately isn’t the best example of cross-gendering Shakespeare).
I noticed during my production history research that King Lear tends to be staged relatively traditionally. Even few productions that included modern elements remained somewhat ambiguous with design and setting. There were some breaks from Lear conventionality (a female Fool in the Greg Hicks RSC Lear; a revolving white box as the set in the 1990 RSC Lear; a horde of beggars following Edgar around in the 2008 Globe production) but compared to stagings of Shakespeare’s other work, directors didn’t seem tempted to experiment as much. During my England trip, I saw a modern-day Desperate Housewives-esque Merry Wives and a Julius Caesar in an all-male prison. But I didn’t find any particularly “out there” Lears.
And then, this afternoon, I stumbled on this little gem:
Kathryn Hunter became the first female to play Lear professionally in 1997. Hunter is known for playing traditionally male Shakespearian characters, in particular for her Richard III and Fool in the above-mentioned Hicks Lear. It isn’t easy to find many reviews from a pre-2000 production online, so I have to rely on this video and the following images to try to understand what her performance was like. I never imagined cross-casting King Lear, but from the looks of it, Hunter knew what she was doing. The photographs actually remind me of the 1982 RSC Lear with Michael Gambon, giving the impression of a dark, nightmarish circus.
There are numerous references to gender in King Lear. Gloucester is ashamed of his adulterous past: “[Edmund’s mother] had, indeed, sir, a son for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed” (I.i). Lear has a fear of crying even though he has “full cause of weeping,” lamenting “how this mother swells up toward my heart” (III.iv). He specifically curses his eldest daughter with sterility, destroying her ability to fulfill her duties as a wife. Despite this apparent anger toward women throughout the play, some of his final words are gentle toward them; he describes Cordelia’s voice as “ever soft,/ Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman” (V.iii).
Although I don’t know much about Hunter’s performance, I imagine it probed some difficult questions about gender and identity within the context of the play. The male characters’ attacks on women (I almost forgot Albany’s line: “Proper deformity seems not in the fiend/ So horrid as in woman) are somewhat disturbing when looked at objectively. As we delve into the play even more these next few months, tackling these questions of gender roles and how they relate to our audience are going to be a pretty big challenge; something almost mountainous, I’d imagine. So Ms Hunter, I have no idea if critics thought you managed to make it over the crest of your Everest, but congratulations on being the first woman to climb solo.