Saturday 19 May 2012

King Lear and Art

I went to see an all-aboriginal casting of Shakespeare’s King Lear this weekend.  The reviews had been mixed, some loving the idea but not liking the execution and others not liking the idea at all.  The play was set during the early years of North American colonization.  The idea interested me and I wanted to see how it was done.  One neat feature was the costuming, Goneril, Reagan and Edmund regularly appeared in more European clothing, highlighting their separation from their societal and family ties.  Another was the choice to have the same actress playing both Cordelia and the Fool.  Both are trying to awaken Lear to his role in his downfall and it made some interesting subtexts in the dialogue.

In all, I would say it was a solid performance and one I was happy to see.  I’ve always considered Lear to be a difficult play since the societal assumptions and roles have changed so much since Shakespeare’s time.  Fathers and kings no longer receive the unquestioned devotion of their subjects and children.

I saw a version in Stratford where the director portrayed Lear as having Alzheimer’s.  I thought that was an interesting approach and one which fit his behaviour well.  Lear’s irrational shifts between demands and tears, his descent into madness, his apparent inability to tolerate any dissent or discussion about his behaviour, those are all familiar to those whose loved ones suffer from Alzheimer’s.  It gave Goneril and Reagan some useful sympathy.  Rather than vicious unnatural vipers intent on destroying their father, they are women attempting to manage their father’s illness.  It made their later actions harder to understand, in terms of their war to seduce Edmund, but I thought the choice worked.  Purists might complain and wonder if Shakespeare was even aware of Alzheimer’s as a disease, but that’s for historians to debate.

I wonder sometimes how Shakespeare would feel about modern interpretations and adaptations of his plays.  I’m sure he’d be both tickled and flabbergasted to realize they were still being performed four hundred years after his death.  There are times I imagine he’d be frustrated by tedious and weighty performances, full of sonorous importunings.  I can see him charging out of the wings, shouting “No! No! No!” before rolling up his sleeves and directing the actors.  From his work, I would guess that Shakespeare loved to laugh.  The jokes and plays on words speak for themselves.  Even in tragedy, he inserts wry jests and comic relief.

In fact, if I may dare critique, sometimes I think the jokes distract from the story.  The Fool in Lear is a fun character, lots of fun to watch, but he distracts from the events of the story.

(Waiting to see if lightning strikes me down from the heavens for my impertinence … Nope?  Okay, still good.)

To me, the genius of Shakespeare was the universality of his characters and his ability to use the English language like an artist uses paint.  The plots of his plays are mostly lifted from history or contemporary culture and tend to be melodramatic.  But the language and characters transcend the predictability.  You don’t go to a Shakespeare play to be surprised by the ending.  (Or else they certainly wouldn’t have lasted this long.)  You go to enjoy the journey.

I like the character developed in Shakespeare in Love.  It feels genuine.  He’s a writer who is desperate to get his work done but he’s also frustrated with the limitations available to him, the “notes” from the theatre owner and his life in general.  He’s not an isolated genius sitting in an ivory tower and penning great works, he’s a playwright who wants to make rent and food money.  I think it’s important not to forget that the plays weren’t intended to be scholarly subjects.  They were meant to be performed and enjoyed by an audience.  Hopefully enjoyed enough that they’d come back for the next one.  They were commercial.

Art done for popular culture isn’t necessarily invalidated by its own popularity.  I’ve always believed that if a piece was so obscure that it needed a ream of footnotes to be understood, then the artist didn’t do a good job of connection with his or her audience.  Not everything which is popular is good (cough, cough, reality TV, cough).  But if it connects with a lot of people over a long period of time, then you’ve got to look at it again and see what is resonating.

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