We Love Arts: but Lear is unlovable

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘Joel Washing’

In brief: this is Shakespeare as torture porn.

It’s tough to organize this review. Put marginally less briefly, this production of King Lear pretty much sacrifices the story in order to wallow around in physical violence, partially demolished sets, thrusting and grunting and marital rape. It has a lot of visual appeal with regards to the sets and costuming but that’s not enough to recommend it.

That’s not really the fault of anyone on stage. With one significant exception every one of the actors does a nice job, though only Jonno Roberts as Edmund really puts in an notable performance. Others suffer from some odd choices that may or may not be their fault, such as the painful sing-song that Joaquin Torres uses when voicing Edgar’s alter-ego Tom.

The truly offensive content – and there’s a fair amount – likely all can be laid at the feet of the director, Robert Falls. If you’re going to go anyway you may want to skip the rest of this review, as it’ll be filled with spoilers for how several scenes are staged. That it’s possible for there to be a spoiler for a four-hundred year old work is an interesting fact in and of itself, I think, but not a reason to subject yourself to this production.

This Lear is set in 1990s Serbia-Herzegovina, after Yugoslavia dissolved. Akiva Fox, in his article in the STC’s Asides, quotes Falls as saying that after he did some research on the conflict “it really became the emotional and visual basis for this production of King Lear.” The unfortunate thing is that he’s right – that is without a doubt the core of this production, and it is to the detriment of the actual story. Visually the sets are stunning, ranging from the opening at a party held by Lear through a variety of bombed-out scenes of death and destruction. Unfortunately they begin to destabilize the story right at the beginning.

The opening, for example, in the opulent ballroom where Lear has planned to divide up his kingdom among his three daughters. While I’m always wary about moving Shakespeare into another time, this one had interesting touches. Beat-boxing in Shakespeare? Using a large, complicated cake baked into the shape of Lear’s territory that he can cut into and hand out slices to show new borders? That’s clever stuff. But another clever move undercuts the whole point of the story.

Lear picks up a microphone and, playfully, asks his daughters to explain why they love him best. It’s cute, but his demands and the crowd’s reactions makes him seem like he’s looking for retirement party speeches, not tribute and obedience. Regan and Goneril’s toadying and jockeying for favor seem loving and well-meant. Laura Odeh, as Cordelia, laughs and claps along with everyone else… till it’s her turn. Rather than a reasonable person refusing to play the politics of praise who promises to be a proper wife to her future husband, she just seems like a party-pooper. Lear might seem like a jerk for his subsequent reaction but it undermines the play’s message about proper roles for Kings and their subjects and parents and their children.

Other bits of Falls’ Serbia-inspired play only detract from the story by being pointless and boring. For what seemed like an hour in the fourth act we witness the ensemble dragging plastic-wrapped corpses on-stage and then shoving them into a mass grave. Nothing else moves the story along during this time, as it all happens in between two lines from a disguised Edgar to his blinded father, Gloucester. Torres utters one line, dashes off stage, and poor Edward Gero has to stand there while the musical dirge goes on and on and on and on and on.

I don’t take issue with the less-than-daring stance that war is bad, but trying to make a statement about how the little people suffer in a conflict simply doesn’t work here. There are no minor characters bleeding for the royalty and no way to make us empathize with them. Absent any emotional reaction this is just set dressing run amok.

Accidental undermining and pointless interludes just make this production a failure. It’s the deliberate additions and subverting of the story that make this production outright offensive.

No act of violence happens on stage without it being drawn out and horrific. Horrific could be acceptable – I don’t mind violence in entertainment; I mind when it’s completely without consequence. Here, however, we go past showing consequence and straight into reveling in it. When Edmund chokes Cornwall to death, the sequence goes on for over a minute. Chris Genebach thrashes around on the stage, kicking and wheezing while Roberts pushes and pulls him, eventually kneeling on his head to finish the job.

If you don’t remember that from the text or any other production, it’s because it’s one of several bits of physical staging that Falls introduces. Oswald performing cunnilingus on Goneril as she queries him about her father’s abuse of the servants is creepy, but at least it supports her characterization as immoral and disdainful of her husband. Regan watching her husband be strangled, wordlessly, after having just come to  his aid against another is more nonsensical. The man who screams in pain as he crawls halfway off stage is eventually silenced when Edward Edgar shoots him a second time, this time in the head… that was just… noise.

Worst, I think, is Albany ripping off his wife’s panties and attempting to rape her, thwarted only by impotence, while they argue over what has been done to Glouster. When Lear carries Cordelia’s body in at the end I was not in the least bit surprised that Falls had chosen for her to be naked and covered with bruises. Did someone have to talk him down from pouring fake blood on the actress’ crotch so we could all know for sure that she’d been raped to death?

Stay home.

King Lear runs at Shakepeare Theater Company’s Harman Hall through July 19, 2009
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004

[edited to fix my misspelling of Akiva Fox's name and my idiotic assumption of gender]
[edited to correct the point where my brain rebelled against constantly switching between edMUND and edGAR and decided to make up a whole new E name...]

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


13 thoughts on “We Love Arts: but Lear is unlovable

  1. Um… Who’s “Edward” (i.e. “…is eventually silenced when Edward shoots him a second time.”). I guess we can assume you meant EDGAR? If your going to write a review that spews ridiculous bile, at least make sure you know who and what you are talking about.

    As per your summation “Stay home”: STOP REVIEWING.

  2. Um… Who is “Edward” (i.e. “…is eventually silenced when Edward shoots him a second time.”)? I guess we can assume you meant EDGAR? If you’re going to write a review that spews ridiculous bile, at least make sure you know who and what you are talking about.

    As per your summation “Stay home”: STOP REVIEWING.

    Edited to fix my misspellings and for your idiotic assumption that you have a handle on theatre.

  3. Oh my! I wasn’t planning on seeing this but now I think I must, given the disparity between everyone’s opinions.

    I’ve seen so many Lears it makes my head reel, but all the passion about this production is just too much!

    (and I’ve got cred, btw, having suffered through Ken Branagh’s ‘worst Edgar in living memory’ – by his own admission – and Brian Cox’s wheelchair Lear in a clown nose – oh lord, the list goes on, there is no such thing as a perfect Lear…)

  4. Ok, one more thought, directly for @idiocy (I may regret this, but…)

    Don wrote an impassioned review that was a direct response to his feelings upon seeing this production. It engendered a powerful, visceral response in him – which is in fact what the theater is all about.

    For good or bad, positive and negative reactions to a performance are reactions first and foremost. The reaction is what we want, not rubber-stamped acceptance.

    Not everyone is going to like what you put your heart and soul into – but at least they are reacting. The worst thing is for the audience to shrug their shoulders, say “eh” or even just give a rubber-stamped acceptance without thinking about what they’ve seen – that’s true negation of your efforts.

    Negative responses are just as potent, perhaps even more so than positive ones. If you don’t agree, read playwright Howard Barker’s works on that very subject. He goes even further – he’d rather the audience felt uncomfortable than blithely give a standing ovation every time (something that happens far too frequently in DC, I might add).

    Barker would’ve loved Don’s repulsion, and it sounds like this production is influenced by that Theatre of Catastrophe concept anyway.

    So, a little deep breathing here. No one’s been attacked any worse than say, Kenneth Tynan’s systematic destruction of Vivien Leigh. It’s Don’s honest response to what he experienced. I wish I had the guts to do that more often.

  5. Irrespective of your opinion of the show, you’re a law-breaker. That snapshot you took is totally not allowed. You were expressly told this by the curtain speech RIGHT BEFORE YOU TOOK THE PICTURE. Take it down from your site and don’t do it anymore, whether you post it or retain it as a personal keepsake.

  6. You have confused “forbidden” with “illegal.” STC does not make law, nor does their no photos policy translate into illegal. If they should choose to request I replace the photo I’ll be glad to, but I’m not going to go to the effort on the behalf of a strident and impolite random person.

    Quite frankly I’d just as soon have not have used that photo; it’s a crappy camphone pic that I took simply to use in a note to a friend who’d seen the show several days before. However at the time I wrote this review I had not received any photos from STC and the only Lear associated ones on their website were of individual castmembers.

    Since I knew I was writing a negative review about the production that had nothing to do with the quality of the actors I preferred not to use a shot that spotlighted any particular one. Thus, this cruddy camphone shot.

  7. It’s a violation of copyright law, FYI. The set designer’s image is protected, and yours is an unauthorized photo used without permission.

    Impolite, REALLY?! Rich.

  8. Sir,
    Colleen is correct in her pointing out that the photo you use here needs to be removed. Please kindly remove it and delete from your files.

    If you would like an approved photo we can arrange that. Please email our publicist at ascottdouglass[at]shakespearetheatre.org.

    Thank you for attending our production. We are happy it made such a strong impression on you and we always appreciate good and bad feedback.

    Stacy Shaw

  9. Yes, Colleen, I consider barking strident orders at people impolite. I suspect you agree and wouldn’t do it in person, but something about the pseudo-anonymity of the internet lends people unfortunate nerve.

    With regards to copyright law, you could be correct that the set designer controls the image in question. However it’s far more likely that it constitutes work for hire and the copyright is held by either the production company or Shakespeare Theater, depending on whether this set is a reproduction of the one from the original production in Chicago.

    That still does not make its use “illegal.” Copyright is a civil matter and the rights owner has avenues to petition for redress. The DMCA allows for some criminal provisions in particular cases like mass manufacture of bootleg DVDs, but this is not such a case.

    Taking pictures in a venue where it is prohibited is not illegal, it’s a violation of the location’s rules. As such they’re free to ask you to stop and/or leave, at which time you would be trespassing if you refuse to go.

    Whether any subsequent actions by the venue would hold up over the long term is less clear. In a case like this there’s a clear fair use case, which allows for use for purposes of commentary and analysis regardless of the desires of the copyright holder.

    Of course there is a difference between victory in law and victory in the pocketbook. Many conflicts like this result in victory first and foremost for the lawyers on both side who are gathering up billable hours.

    Even aside from my lack of interest in getting involved in a legal brawl with an organization better funded than ours, we’ve never used people’s images against their desires regardless of our right to do so. There could come a time where it’s worth doing so to write a quality story but we’ve yet to encounter that situation.

    In keeping with that, I have verified that the above poster is indeed Ms Shaw and replaced the image in question at her request.

  10. Regardless of it being illegal or forbidden, it does falls into the category of “unacceptable” behavior – performers don’t like it – look at the recent reactions of performers like Patti LuPone and Patrick Stewart. It’s just something we don’t do. I applaud your reviews, which I find myself reading more and more, and I am sure any theater would give you a PR photo for inclusion in you reviews.

  11. They would and usually do, Nate, and in this case it was just a matter of being up against a deadline and not wanting, as I said, to imply with a photo that my negative review was a reflection on the actors in this case.

    If our older articles tended to have “legs” I would have gone back and updated it with an official photo, but 99% of the time once something rolls off the front page it may as well have disappeared from the planet. I was borderline shocked to see Colleen’s comment; it’s exceptionally rare for us to see comments on a post over a week after its publication.

    Rest assured that I would never in a million years shoot during a performance; the removed picture was taken during seating. That poor actor seated in the bathroom set was in place during the audience’s entry. You can add that to my list of things I found to dislike about this production – using performers as nothing but mute set-dressing to be a novelty while an audience finds their seats and unwraps their lozenges strikes me as poor stagecraft.

  12. Interesting note about copyright, per Colleen’s belief that the set designer’s image is protected separately – as a costume designer, one of the last productions I did, I actually had to pay the photographer for images of my own work. It’s all very contractually complicated and I still don’t quite understand it. But I don’t think that ultimately I control the copyright, I think the production company does…

    A tangled web, really.