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?
[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...]