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Reconstructing King Lear’s Tragic Condition

By Michael Lupu

Suffice it to say, nearly everyone has read, heard about, or seen a staging of King Lear. But over time, the sanctity of an urtext of Shakespeare’s King Lear—a prompter’s book, a quarto or a folio edition—has been questioned, tested, and challenged. Shakespeare is the foundation—hard as a rock and fluid as a river—that informs all creative endeavors; since the Bard’s days, it has proven futile if not impossible to seek a “pure” Lear.

One notorious case in point, called The Tragedy of King Lear, dates from 1681. The story was “revived with alterations” by Nahum Tate and Thomas Betterton, a leading London actor of the time, played the title role. In that version, the character of the Fool no longer existed and the performance ended with a happy ending, a celebration of the wedding of Cordelia and Edgar.

Countless other treatments contribute to the enticing and contradictory aura of such shifting theatrical perspectives and contexts. They “construct” the dramatic material differently, boast perpetual distinctions between one show and another, and foster mixed results (including stunning revelations). The world of experimental and unconventional theater, clearly, has been around for a long time.

“Deconstruction” assumes a “reconstruction,” or perhaps even a “rediscovery.” As the text undergoes the deconstruction, it reshapes the play for performance. Think of it as a journey whereby a play is scrutinized, (re-)interpreted, and freshly revealed on stage by a company of artists.

In Germany, such undertakings have been openly embraced, albeit with mixed results. Many shows take pride in being experimental and daring theatrical explorations. An eloquent proof comes from the theatrical collective She She Pop, whose version of King Lear is billed as Testament, a deconstruction of the tragic play with a twist.

Hailing from Berlin, the group has garnered many accolades, along with an inescapable cortege of controversies. Given its stated mission, She She Pop examines the way the canon of classics (Shakespeare being preeminent here) meets our present view of the world. This outlook has always brought novel choices to the way the classics of the past inform the present.

One example is from the early 1960s, when Paul Scofield played the aging Lear in Peter Brook’s acclaimed production, which was seen and admired everywhere in the world. When it was performed in Bucharest, Romania was under the spell of the Cold War. Everyone was overwhelmed by the show because it made so grippingly immediate and topical a legendary distant past. But more importantly, it was Brook’s stark rendering of the politics of power that hit us then with poignant relevance. The old monarch ended up dispossessed and forced to pay dearly for his arbitrary choice of trusting flattery as he passed his scepter to his two older daughters and rejected in anger Cordelia’s frankness.

Lear’s decision, at once foolish and arrogant, played fully in the hands of a ruthless opportunism that seized power with sycophant promises. For the Romanian audience, it suggested an unmistakable link with the so-called socialist regime—the dictatorship that prevailed on that side of the Iron Curtain. In Bucharest, the public applauded Brook’s approach enthusiastically because it appeared to expose the shame of a ruler blatantly vulnerable to flattery who relied on empty slogans and false promises. This interpretation gave the play the resonance of a sharp political manifesto rather than offering just a depiction of the terrible demise of old age.

In this version, Lear’s deteriorating condition was the consequence of his own undoing, an amalgam of hubris and foolishness. His blind spots transcended everything else. Brook’s staging seemed to downplay the issues of family ties in favor of the blunt and scary game of power manipulation that captured the very nature of a totalitarian political regime.

Several decades prior to Brook’s interpretation of the play, Harley Granville-Barker directed King Lear for the Old Vic in London. The cultural and theatrical circumstances were different and informed the production. John Gielgud remembered well the occasion. For him, the director’s main focus was on the actors getting the lines right. They were his key to reveal the beauty and rich meaning of the play. As Gielgud commented, Granville Barker encouraged the company to “think of Lear as an oak among ash trees,” and “under his subtle hand” all “theatrical devices became classic, tragic, noble, not merely histrionic or melodramatic, because of the unerring taste and simplicity with which he ordered them.”

In an extremely different vein, reputed German stage director Peter Zadek reportedly turned the tragedy into a sarcastic and demeaning vaudeville. The performance mocked the mishaps of the senile king just as his two older daughters were doing it. Evidently, the spectrum of interpretations never seems to end. Quite compelling and disturbing was the approach of the great Russian filmmaker Grigori Kozintzev, who adapted Shakespeare’s play as a dark cinematic metaphor. Strikingly visual images commented on the adversity of a desolate wintry landscape, where rash political decisions fostered misery and the tragic demise of humanity.

This brings us back full circle to the visit of the Berlin troupe to the Twin Cities with Testament. It is a provocative, engaging, fascinating and highly unorthodox exploration of immediate topics made apparent by their idiosyncratic “reading” (i.e., deconstructed and reconstructed) of Shakespeare’s King Lear. She She Pop’s deconstructed King Lear is, at its core, audacious and relevant (though perhaps questionable for some). It relies on an innovative and imaginative reading of the classic play, bringing a fresh treatment to the familiar story of the old king and his three daughters. I’ll disclose only one fact for your consideration: the show multiplies the Lear figure by three and includes actual fathers to play side by side with their daughters.

Michael Lupu is Senior Dramaturg at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

She She Pop, Testament, 2012

Photo: © Doro Tuch

Page one of the first quarto edition of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, published in 1608

Photo: Wikipedia

Paul Scofield as King Lear in Peter Brook’s famed 1962 production

Photo: Angus McBean, Royal Shakespeare Company

John Gielgud as King Lear

Photo: Time and Life Pictures

She She Pop, Testament, 2012

Photo: © Doro Tuch

She She Pop, Testament, 2012

Photo: © Doro Tuch