Monday, October 20, 2014

Dancing on Lear's grave; or, Blow, winds! And pass the popcorn!

Joseph Marcell rages in King Lear.

The touring production of King Lear that Shakespeare's Globe opened last week at ArtsEmerson (where it plays through this Thursday) proved a true rarity: an unsatisfying production that nevertheless trailed paradoxical critical questions in its wake.

Not that many critics had any doubts about the show. In New York, Isherwood sniffed, and in Boston, Aucoin sadly shook his head. Neither gentleman could be mistaken for an intellectual, of course - nor would they want to be! - but egg-headed mandarins like Bill Marx were for once in accord with the mainstream mavens. This, they agreed, was a Lear largely undone by its performance style.

Sadly, though, none of these writers seemed aware of the internal contradiction at the bottom of their mutual position - roughly, that Shakespeare's tragedy wasn't done justice by the theatre of its day.

A proposition which is somehow not entirely convincing. (And almost certainly arrogant.) At the very least, I'd argue that any critic should (indeed, must) engage with the questions raised by a company's performance style before simply dismissing it.

But then I'm rather in sympathy with this particular company's mission - which I take as an attempt to connect with the public by re-invigorating the populist energy of the Elizabethan stage. For of course Shakespeare was enormously popular in his day, when his plays were generally performed in bright sunlight, before crowds much like the ones that today fill the bleachers at Fenway Park.  

But how does one reconcile the Elizabethan equivalent of hotdogs and popcorn with the intricacies of Shakespeare's verse, the unparalleled subtlety of his insights, and the thematic complexity of his construction?

It's a question most scholars have simply ignored - but which Shakespeare's Globe openly embraces. Although unlike the avatars of original practices in early music, this company only ventures halfway down its declared artistic path.  Yes, they ignore Wagner's innovation of dimming the house lights; and their actors openly interact with the audience before (and sometimes during) the show. Players also often double roles, and are expected to be able to sing, play an instrument, and even dance - indeed the company often concludes a performance (even a tragic one, like Lear) with a jig, just as the Elizabethans did. Still, as far as I know, female roles are not played by teen-aged boys on their London stage (although the company has often dabbled with cross-dressing), and questions of Elizabethan accent, rhyme, and rhythm are given scant attention.

So what Shakespeare's Globe is offering is a millennial revision of the Elizabethan experience rather than the thing itself.  But even within those limits, its tricks and tropes are often jarring.  Many critics, for instance, could not abide a King Lear that ended with many recently-deceased characters rising from the stage to join hands and cut a rug.  Somehow, these reviewers declared, this utterly compromised the tragic grandeur of the text.

Only scholars agree that's how the Bard himself did it. So Isherwood, Aucoin and Marx are basically saying that Shakespeare didn't know how to stage his own play.

Times do change: the Victorian view of Lear - John Gilbert's "Cordelia in the Court of King Lear"

And again, that's - well, a hypothesis, I suppose. A vulgar one, but still a hypothesis. A stronger case might be made that Shakespeare would have done away with certain Elizabethan stage traditions if he'd been able to - but even that is pure conjecture, and at least partly answered by the high probability that Shakespeare styled his scripts to match the resources and context available. (And remember that Shakespeare was not only resident author at the Globe, but also a supporting actor - so he may well have personally tripped the light fantastic after Hamlet and Lear).

This is an amusing thought - so it's no surprise Shakespeare's Globe is unafraid of embracing rueful bemusement in its tragic style. And yes, its actors do mix with the audience, much like their Elizabethan forbears, and throw themselves into multiple roles (sometimes in a single scene) with often no more disguise than a sly wink. They also play instruments, sing when necessary, and work the stage machinery in full view.  

But the idea isn't to ape (or anticipate) the alienation of Brecht; it is instead to openly conjure Shakespeare's music the way actual music is conjured by musicians who may be wearing anything, and performing anywhere, and can in no way be mistaken for the art they create. Thus there's no fourth wall at the Globe, no attempt at illusionism, and the actors are always actors rather than characters. Oddly, the ultimate effect of all this is almost anti-Brechtian - Elizabethan practices are far more ingratiating than alienating; they invite the audience to identify not only with the story but also with its performers. There's something about this that scrambles the postmodern critical consensus - and not just about Shakespeare, but about theatre in general.

Bethan Cullinane as Cordelia.  Photos: Ellie Kurtz.
And while many reviewers claimed that the concluding dance of this Lear negated its tragic impact, I wasn't so sure. Remembering one of Edgar's famous lines from the heath ("The worst is not, so long as we can say, This is the worst,") I wondered whether joining hands after Lear's passing didn't so much erase his loss as make it bearable (it's perhaps telling that Nahum Tate rewrote this most harrowing of endings after Elizabethan stage practices had been lost). T.S. Eliot famously believed that "humankind cannot bear very much reality," and it's quite possible Shakespeare was of the same opinion - and so afforded his audience some solace after their terrible glimpse into the abyss.

Still, the critics were on firmer ground when they pointed out that this Lear plumbed few harrowing depths prior to that final foxtrot. In the lead role, Joseph Marcell offered a bemusedly eccentric, sometimes overly-literal Lear - which began to click in his humble final speeches, but limned little of the harsh road to that humility.  Likewise Gwendolen Chatfield and Shanaya Rafaat made a superficial pair of evil sisters (although Rafaat found an intriguingly childish glee in Regan's sadism).  Bethan Cullinane brought more depth to Cordelia (at left), but her doubling as the Fool threw off few psychological or metaphoric sparks. 

The supporting men were better - sometimes far better. John Stahl's flinty Gloucester was the standout - his blind stumbles on the heath were heart-rending, and the tricky scene of his attempted suicide was completely gripping. Meanwhile, as his wronged son Edgar, the striking Alex Mugnaioni always seemed on the verge of a coherent interpretation without ever quite forging one (tellingly, his take on Poor Tom was likewise fluttery and peripatetic). A bit better was Daniel Pirrie's sallowly charming Edmund - although the performance didn't quite have the vicious snap it should; Pirrie was actually stronger in his snippy turn as Oswald.

In the end, then, the best criticism of this production is that director Bill Buckhurst didn't really trust Elizabethan stage conventions enough. My gut is that they can withstand more tragedy than he was willing to risk; I'm sure houselights and doubled roles and singing and dancing can successfully co-exist with far more intense and committed performances than were elicited here. (Indeed, a dance toward sunlight from the darkest depths of despair could be an unforgettable theatrical coup.) In their last visit, Shakespeare's Globe brought us a brilliantly staged Elizabethan take on Hamlet - perhaps the Bard's most bitterly witty tragedy. Lear, however, is a very different theatrical animal. In a way, its terrible pathos may represent Shakespeare's greatest challenge to the Globe's ethos - i.e., to his own ethos.  Let's hope that in their next production, they dare to truly take up that gauntlet.

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