King Lear, The Globe, 18 May 2012
The Belarusian production of King Lear from Belarus Free Theatre was an angular, spiky concoction that used provocative imagery to arouse strong feelings. It also contained a subtle theme based on the text’s bird references.
Something was clearly amiss within the world of the play right from the start as two central characters were revealed to be disabled. Gloucester (Pavel Garadnitski) entered in a wheelchair with his son Edmund (Aliaksei Naranovich), accompanied by war veteran Kent (Dzianis Tarasenka) who propelled himself around kneeling on a low trolley.
The court assembled on two benches with Goneril (Yana Rusakevich), Albany (Yuri Koliada), Gloucester and Edmund stage right, and Cordelia (Victoria Biran), Burgundy (Siarhei Kvachonak), Regan (Maryna Yurevich) and Cornwall (Alex Shyrnevich) stage left. The Fool (Pavel Arakelian) sat at a piano upstage left and Kent positioned his trolley next to the piano.
The bent and hunched figure of Lear (Aleh Sidorchik) hobbled slowly through the centre doors pushing a trolley supporting a suitcase. Then with a flourish and a cackle, the apparently old man threw off his shawl to emerge as his real, vigorous self, complete with a shiny armoured gauntlet on his right hand.
Instead of merely speaking their love for their father, Lear’s daughters were expected to sing it to him.
The elfin but steely Goneril had a long white coat that contrasted with the jet black of her punky hair. She sang a cheesy song and danced almost like a child for her “daddy”. Her obedience was rewarded not with an allocation of land, but with actual soil that Lear scooped out of the suitcase and loaded into the lap of Goneril’s dress.
She hoisted the front of her garment, exposing her bottom, and then sat down again clutching the soil in front of her stomach within the fold of her dress. This apparent digestion of the soil could have been prompted by Lear’s later instruction, related to the reallocation of Cordelia’s share: “digest this third”.
Regan reversed her sister’s colour scheme in a black coat with short, backcombed blond hair. She sang in the same way as her sister and duly collected her allocation of soil.
While her sisters had been singing for Lear, Cordelia had been sitting close to Burgundy and kissing him. When called upon to sing, her first response was to play air guitar. After prompting, she sang half-heartedly and flashed her backside childishly.
Lear showed his displeasure by playing jarring discordant notes on the piano as he disinherited Cordelia. The king scuffled with his disobedient daughter and his armoured gauntlet hit her in the face, giving her a bloody nose.
Kent was sat on his trolley next to the piano and objected to Lear’s actions, leading the king to silence him.
Regan and Goneril went back for the extra scoops of soil, Cordelia’s third of the kingdom, which were poured in plastic containers. When the soil was gone, Lear filled the suitcase with metal cups, which were also distributed.
Surrounded by his obedient daughters, Lear held his right arm out straight in front of him and invited them to kiss his gauntlet. Kent protested again and was banished.
In the light of its later use (see below), the metal gauntlet seemed to be represent a hawking glove. Lear regarded himself as the keeper of his daughters and the gauntlet symbolised this proprietorial relationship. While it was obviously not possible for them to perch on the gauntlet, Lear did expect them to show their obedience by kissing it.
Burgundy abandoned Cordelia as she no longer had a dowry. This cleared the way for the aged King of France to make his rickety way towards Cordelia and express an interest. Lear mocked him by imitating his faltering voice and bent back. Cordelia was then married to France with the blood from her nose still caked on her face.
Edmund slapped the letter that would discredit his brother on the ground and explained his plan. As Saffron Walkling has pointed out, Edmund used a syringe to draw blood from his arm, which would be used later as part of his subterfuge.
His father Gloucester obliged Edmund to hold a bedpan in front of his wheelchair into which he sprayed a stream of urine while he read the letter. His fury at Edgar’s apparent disloyalty caused Gloucester to strike furiously at Edmund with his belt. He forced his son’s head down into his lap.
He gave Edmund a book with a large crucifix attached to the front cover, which Edmund sat reading when Edgar and a friend entered joking, laughing and smoking a joint. The stoned pair tried to get Edmund to join them in a smoke and give up his studious contemplation. But Edmund merely warned his brother about their father’s anger at him.
Lear’s knights rampaged through Goneril’s house and she looked on despondently, before instructing the ponytailed Oswald (Yuliya Shauchuk) not to respond to Lear’s requests.
The container of soil that Goneril had obtained from her father was clearly visible with flowers growing out of it.
Kent took off his war medals and somehow regained the use of his legs to disguise himself and offer his services to Lear. He was soon kicking the disrespectful Oswald around and cutting the servant’s ponytail.
The Fool’s jesting with Lear was conducting using the piano to provide a musical setting to his taunts. His response to the arrival of Goneril was to bare his bum to reveal the letters K and L tattooed on each buttock.
Goneril confronted Lear with his unruliness. A line of drinking cups was hastily arranged on the stage for her to scoop up and throw unceremoniously into a trunk, inviting Lear to pack and leave. The violence of this gesture invited a similarly tempestuous response from the King, who tore the coat from her back, held it at one end and beat it repeatedly on the ground.
Lear held his gauntlet like a falconer and blew on a whistle at around the point that the English text has him accuse Goneril saying: “Detested kite! Thou liest.” This was the first point at which the precise significance of the gauntlet became plain. It made sense in the context of the text’s other bird references: his “pelican daughters” and Cordelia and he singing like birds in a cage.
After telling Edgar to flee, Edmund used fake blood to simulate a cut to his hand in order to get his father’s sympathy. Gloucester was so angry at Edgar that he actually fell out of his wheelchair and spent some time flailing about and hitting the ground with his belt. This image of impotent rage was very forceful and disturbing.
Kent insulted and fought with the effeminate and cowardly Oswald, whereupon Regan and Cornwall secured his feet and legs between two pairs of rolled umbrellas and left him centre stage with his legs in the air, his body bent at the waist at a right angle.
Lear and the Fool discovered Kent and he was quickly released. Regan kissed Lear in greeting and then also kissed her sister Goneril when she arrived. As the two sisters faced Lear in formation, the Fool played piano and they waltzed towards Lear united in their desire to diminish the number of his followers. Lear’s anger was expressed by taking hold of them and spinning them round so that their feet left the ground before finally throwing them off.
The sisters said that a storm was coming. They held up umbrellas and then walked backwards as the dishevelled Edgar crawled forward along the ground beneath them.
Edgar was nearly naked and completed his look by reaching into the rear of his loincloth and smearing his hair with something unpleasant he found there. He practised his ravings as Poor Tom.
A French woman paraded to the edge of the stage and pouted like a model to tell us that an army is on way from France.
The storm scene was brilliantly simple and incredibly effective. A massive blue tarpaulin was spread across the stage and held at waist height by a number of balaclava-clad figures. Lear stood behind it on a box. The sheet was wafted up and down, creating a lot of noise and also a tremendous draught of air that could be felt quite forcefully in the yard.
Lear then walked over it to the front of the stage and leant forward at a 45 degree angle with Kent pulling tight on the cords of his coat to stop him falling on his face. This created the impression that he was leaning into the winds, which he invited to blow and crack their cheeks. Water was poured onto the tarpaulin. Lear stood in the middle becoming drenched as the whipping movement caused the water to fly around him.
This very simple device created an extremely powerful and convincing storm scene that many modern theatres with expensive stage equipment would find hard to beat.
Edgar appeared from under the sheet wailing. He was completely naked and sat facing away from the audience as Lear discovered him.
Deciding that he wanted to emulate “unaccommodated man” Lear stripped all his clothes as did Kent and the Fool, who now revealed the “God Save The King” tattoo on his back. All four of them climbed under the sheet like a blanket, but their haste meant that there were brief instances of full nudity.
Gloucester entered with a torch to offer them shelter at which point they stood up and hunched under the same sheet which now represented the shelter. Goneril and Regan appeared briefly at the sides as Lear conducted their mock trial. The bitter Lear kept emerging from under the tarpaulin inadvertently exposing himself. After this the interval came.
The second half began with Edgar sat on the piano outside Gloucester’s house.
Gloucester was wheeled in as a prisoner and blinded by Goneril, Regan and Cornwall by the simple device of his eyes being marked with ink behind his huge glasses. He was then tipped out of his chair. Gloucester lashed out at Cornwall, who fell to the ground as he released soil from his hand onto the ground. This was the first instance of the production’s death symbol, which interestingly featured the symbolic representation of the land that Lear had allocated among his daughters.
Most of the action showing the development of the rivalry between Goneril and Regan over Edgar was cut. The complex triangle was dramatised after the final battle. But at this point we did see Regan send Oswald with a letter for Edmund.
Edgar found Gloucester, who asked to be taken to Dover, specifically to the edge of a cliff. He stood carrying Gloucester on his back stage right, symbolising their journey. At the same time Cordelia sang a song by the piano stage left expressing her hope that Lear could be cured of his madness. This was a rough equivalent of 4.4.
The sincerity of this singing was meant to contrast with the insincerity with which she had sung when asked to do so by Lear at the beginning.
Our attention shifted back to Edgar and Gloucester, who simply let Gloucester drop off his back to represent the cliff fall. Edgar, pretending to be a different man at the foot of the cliff, then tended to Gloucester.
King Lear appeared in just his underpants, a coat and a straw headdress. He held a bird’s nest in his hand. The nest was revealed to contain an egg which he broke against his forehead. He removed the headdress, which turned out to be another bird’s nest, and placed its clutch of eggs in a line on the ground. After popping the nest headdress on Edgar, Lear went along the line of eggs breaking each one in turn.
Given the bird theme already established by the hawking gauntlet, the fact that Lear’s madness also had an avian component was significant.
Gloucester knelt by Lear’s side and kissed his hand to welcome him.
A team of doctors entered. But Lear evaded them by insisting on his royal status and then darting away at great speed.
Oswald tried to kill Gloucester, but Edgar defended his father and killed Oswald. In the confusion, Gloucester came to rest on the back of his neck with his feet in the air. Edgar took the letter from Oswald before dragging him offstage, briefly kissing him, before returning to set Gloucester the right way up.
The recaptured Lear was brought onstage in a wheelchair and awoke to see Cordelia. Dressed in an elegant dress, she sang to him with a glass of wine in her hand.
This song was significant. Cordelia had earlier refused to debase herself by singing childishly and insincerely for her father. Now she was singing to him as an adult to an adult, thereby establishing the sincerity of her feelings for him. The text of the play invites us to compare the content of Cordelia’s words with those of her sisters. But with feeling expressed through song we could also compare the style of expression.
The final battle was staged using a red tarpaulin to cover the opposing forces as they tussled beneath, watched through binoculars by Albany on the balcony. The huge red sheet was pummelled from the inside: it was like watching Ayers Rock having a fit.
Once the armies under the tarpaulin had stopped moving, Edmund emerged followed by Goneril as they conducted their dalliance. Goneril went back underneath and Regan appeared, enabling Edmund to canoodle with her. This neatly summarised the plot point contained in the cut scenes.
This was followed by an entirely invented scene that showed the imprisonment of Lear and Cordelia. Each was tied to a separate stage pillar while their guards sat downstage making an inventory of their personal effects, including Cordelia’s stilettos and pearls and Lear’s gauntlet. The two were taken and placed together, enabling Lear to comment on the pair of them being like birds in a cage. Edmund then entered to personally order their execution.
Cordelia was hoisted up and then hung. No rope was visible, so the execution was suggested by her jerking motion, which caused her top to fall away exposing her chest. The same was about to happen to Lear when the countermand came from offstage, saving him from being killed. Lear was led away.
The rest of the cast entered and sat on benches exactly as they had done at the start. Goneril danced around Regan and the pair hugged, each holding a wine cup. Regan collapsed and soil fell from her cup, symbolising its poison and marking her death
Edgar showed himself to Edmund and fought with him by spinning him round until his feet left the ground. Edmund then dropped soil from his hand as he died. Kent wheeled in Gloucester in his chair and narrated how he had died, with Gloucester also letting soil fall from his hand as he collapsed in the chair. Goneril’s suicide quickly followed with soil falling from her cup.
As the dead lay slumped in their seats, the Globe fell into complete silence as Lear staggered through the centre doors, pushing the dead Cordelia on the same carriage he had used in jest at the start. But whereas his earlier decrepitude had been feigned, here his physical wreck was the genuine result of his grief.
Lear spoke to Cordelia very softly and, with faint echoes of the ending of The Winter’s Tale, Cordelia revived and kissed her father.
Lear slumped releasing soil from his hand as he fell. Cordelia rose slowly and stood behind the carriage with her back to the audience. By this point the stunned silence of the audience had become even more intense.
Kent joined Lear the other side of the carriage and let soil fall from his hand symbolising his suicide as he followed Lear into death.
After Albany’s closing words the three sisters joined together and held hands to sing the dead march that closed the performance.
This remarkable production was staged using the simplest of props, but packed a powerful punch as its tragic end mirrored its comic beginning.
Large, well-funded theatre companies should ask themselves why so much of their expensively produced output fails to meet the standard set here by the Belarus Free Theatre.