Working on King Lear
to create a production requires so much more than applying artistic considerations.
This becomes obvious when seeing a production that uses theatrical
solutions to create the dramatic tension or attempting to be arty and
relevant for a contemporary audience; or that attempts a no
frills back to basics "play-it-as-written" work that
assumes the accessibility of the text and audience knowledge
of early 17th. century English society.
To present King
Lear today means questioning every element in the play
and deeply considering the possibilities for choices in
performance that go beyond the "objectives/circumstances"
model which serves as the basis for much theatre presentation
today. It also means going beyond the "design" model
where a thematic design over-rides the particulars of the text and
informs decisions for staging.
To develop King
Lear as a work for the stage means essential
consideration of one's own precepts and social constructs. To pretend
these are the same as in immediately post Elizabethan England
would be a nonsense. While it might be an interesting exercise to
emphasise those aspects which were essentially English of
that time, one wonders what point would be served as it would be
largely incomprensible to all but a small group of academics.
Lear as analagous to our social paradigms, on the other hand,
can be very interesting. Considering our Liberal Western traditions
dating back to the Enlightenment and still further contained within
Christian/Judeo/Greek philosophical thought and its new
manifestations will cause us to define the situation very
differently than if we were to consider it in terms of a Sharia
tradition. Likewise a work based in Feminist paradigms will skew the
framing of a production in a particular way that might seem at
odds with traditional views. Adaptations of the play for novels
and films can be seen as influenced from such a paradigm, eg: A
Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.
But, from whatever
framework we approach the text for the purpose of production, we are also
limited by what the audience actually will see. A twenty-first
century audience in Canberra or virtually any city, is subjected to endless
clutter in imagery, messages, sounds and high speed moving through
familiar scenarios: emerging from our sleep to travelling to our
place of work or study; to social engagements; to entertainment distractions
of all kinds; to the way our minds are processed, objectified and
distanced by semantics; further processed through smart cards;
watched on surveylance cameras; spied upon through our computers
where every click can be easily monitored by something or someone ...
There is so
much beauty in King Lear. There is so much truth. And it is
the truth that is so deceptive in all of us. We curb our expression
of truth, as we feel it, in order to be prudent in our family life,
our work, our community and even in our politics. But there are thin
lines between prudence, placation, deception and cowardice.
In the final
passage of King Lear are the lines:
Speak what we feel; not what we ought to say &ldots;
The irony is
that Cordelia imprudently chooses the moment of public ritual
dedication to speak what she feels as she sums up the cynicism of her
sisters in the situation. Lear as the Nation's leader and family
patriarch became accustomed to flattery and well chosen words to feed
him what he wanted to hear. In old age, this warped his sense of
We all have
choices. As Lear did! We can choose to listen to the feelings of
others; to the truths of others and other world views; to the
observations and insights of others &ldots; or we can demand lies and
flattery from what others "ought to speak" in order to
affirm our own tunnel vision of the world and reality. We can call
for banishment, the death penalty or burning at the stake for anyone
who mocks us or challenges our belief system. We can be indignant
when others confront us with the truth of a situation. We can hide
behind our position of power or authority as leaders, parents or
colleagues and demand a feeding of contrived responses to our
calling. But then we cannot be surprised when our reliance on lies
has created a delusional world that contrives our own neurosis and
denial of reality.
really control the will of others? Lear might have thought he was a
successful father. He had compliant children. Yet subsequent events
showed the happy family was a mirage. Two of the three children
played him and his game. The result was the death of Lear, his
children and probably many people from within his kingdom.
was blind to his illegitimate son's need for love. With a
relationship build on denial, it required a real blinding to finally
been Ph Ds contrived around King Lear and many published writings.
Students have for decades written their assignments on the play. But
when it comes to the particular beauty within the work, it is best
found in the relationship between the actors and the text; in the
very act of creating and presenting a performance; in the relational
quality it has with particular communities and experiences of those communities.
It is in these relationships that truth can be identified and
examined. And this brings us to the question of the very purpose of
art and theatre &ldots;
the artist, be it actor, is able to tap personal resources and then
link these to the observations contained within great texts can the potential
of such works be released. As an adjunct to that is the notion of
cultural recognition. It is too glib to speak of the universal truths
in Shakespeare. That is to presume that people in all contexts and
from all time periods feel, react and behave in the same manner.
humorous side to all of this discussion can be summarized by a
comment made by a fifteen year old student who saw our recent production.
We had worked hard in the design and shape of the work to relate it
to experiences of old age and passing from one genertion to the next.
The play was set in what appeared to be like a hospital or nursing home
for the aged. It had hospital style curtains that opened on rails
and two beds for Lear and Gloucester. In a post production
discussion, the young student audience member picked up on what
another was saying about the curtains. "Ah ... now I get it.
They're like from a hospital ... and the old guys are ... of course."
Then she made the telling remark. "I thought they were cheap
hospital curtains because you couldn't afford proper stage ones."
is more comforting to keep art remote and seemingly of some other place.
It can then be looked at and "appreciated" rather than
felt. And in spite of all our efforts to make it more directly
connected with the experience of now, there will always be other factors
at play that will make the audience receive the work in diverse and
often unforeseen ways.