Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 30 / 27 July 2017
 

The utter madness of the king

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The puzzling over the name tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has become as repetitive and determinedly fixed in place as the hair, if hair's what that is. The questions, Is this a man?, Is this a human? are not of the variety that are answerable in autopsy, and we look hither and yon for correlates in the natural world that will yield if not comprehension then an explanation, but we hunt in vain.

The fracas over New York's al fresco "Julius Caesar" is as precise a metaphor for the addled modern spectator mind as could be. A perfect storm of misunderstanding and false identification, it was protested as the very thing it was – is – not, that is, an apologia for assassination, let alone a call for one. As theater-savvy New Yorkers pointed out, portraying Caesar as about-to-be-assassinated American Presidents is less a Freudian wish than, these days, a theatrical cliche. How close are we now to a leering Lear?

Milton's Satan is a cardboard cutout next to Shakespeare's senescent king if only because Satan, scene-stealing though he is, awes his creator to the extent that Milton is humorless about him. But wit and humor prevail in the playwright's depiction of the muttering, gaseous monarch, and the horrors the gaffe-master wreaks, wittingly and not, are black comedy. Post-election, post-inauguration-coronation, I hauled my Complete Works off the shelf, hoping that I would find in it a pertinent urtext of the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." What I found instead was Shakespeare's unsparing eye for vanity, for the explication of which he had in mind the stage.

Almost simultaneously with the drizzly ceremony of the inauguration a new video of "King Lear" (Opus Arte DVD/Blu-ray) appeared. It's the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2016 production caught live, and as its tragedy unfolds, a striking element is the audience's quick responses, sharp laughter in particular.

Essential to its brilliance is Gregory Doran's realization of this grand, universal, "cosmic" play on the sparest and most claustrophobic of thrust stages, decorated with Niki Turner's exquisite yet minimal set pieces. The playing space is so narrow you start making up stories about the audience members seated right up to the stage lip, the playing field so tight that you know subconsciously that the characters making their swift entrances and exits off its ribbons are never fully out of earshot of the action we all witness. We spectators are in on the action, collectively the frog in pot being brought slowly to a boil by Doran's relentless direction of action whose ineluctable conclusion we know going in. Our laughs become ever fewer, gaspings for breath that are, if anything, too few and far between.

The camera (producer John Wyver, director Robin Lough) accentuates and adds to that feeling of compression verging on explosion. In a vaulting exit timed with his transformation from Tom o' Bedlam back to Edgar, the camera slurps up the superb, tasty Oliver Johnstone until his face, wondrous to behold, looking back, eats up the screen.

God knows the RSC had enough of its own aging monarchs to make a caustic update, but it passed on that option. Such as the costumes have period, it's more then than now. The King Lear, Sir Anthony Sher (Doran's long-time artistic and civil partner) shrugs off molds and stereotypes for increased range of responses. Confirming that this is a man "more sinned against than sinning," who should not now, or ever, be king, he reveals more than ravages of age.

The first act's grandiose divvying up of the kingdom among family by a man who's now finding his too-hard-a-job mimicked the transition in Washington, but it was only days before I watched the play that CNN broadcast the master commanding praise and devotion from his underlings. While any number of the play's touches have their modern analogies, it's less any action in specific than the overarching ego-inflation, smothering everyone and everything around it, that strikes an American viewer. Crazy is an equal-opportunity employer, but vanity is reserved for the select few.

The deadly, death-dealing confusion sewn among the minions, too, is striking for its headlines-reflecting quality; as for the vile sisters and their treacherous, self-interested, double-dealing suitors, the competition is stiff. No one would mistake the good Cordelia, here the magnificent Natalie Simpson, who is black, for the demurely adulatory cobbler daughter, Brecht's blond Jewish Wife instead.

This "Lear" is magnificent Shakespeare, not fake or breaking news, and tellingly, its king is capable of change, albeit too late for lives in his care. That's such lesson as Shakespeare's play has to offer, offset by some lines that chill: "The tempest in my mind – that way madness lies." The late Lear is proclaimed "every inch the king," but what strikes the audience to the core is the sane Edgar's declaration, "The worst is not, so long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"






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