Recently, I was able to attend a showing of King Lear, starring Stacy Keach, at Washington, DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. Like most modern productions of Shakespeare’s plays, it wasn’t set in the original time period. The references to England and France aside, Washington Post critic Peter Marks described the place as a “modern-day Eastern Europe… a country not unlike Marshal Tito’s ethnically straitjacketed Yugoslavia.” But l thought the culture depicted borrowed a lot from the modern mob movie genre (a bit ironic since the more artsy mob movies have often exploited Shakespearean themes).
Early in the play, for instance, when Lear divides up his kingdom, it’s visualized by him cutting slices from a cake, which echoed the scene in the Godfather Part II, in which an aging Hyman Roth allocates his empire among other crime families as his birthday cake gets sliced up. There’s also the ostentatiousness – characters wearing chains, fur coats, and Cornwall being driven around in a Mercedes. The violence, inherent in Shakespeare’s original work, is played up to the maximum possible degree in a way that recalls Martin Scorsese. The scene in which Gloucester’s eyes get gouged out is set in a kitchen, as Cornwall prepares the food. Even some of the music choices reminded me of Scorsese, particularly the use of the Rolling Stones song “Gimme Shelter,” which has been used in three of his films. Here, it’s deployed as Lear runs onto the stage during a storm, losing his mind, and yelling toward the sky. The song’s lyrics are actually quite fitting: “Oh, a storm is threatening/My very life today/If I don’t get some shelter/Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away/War, children, its just a shot away.”
The production, directed by Robert Falls and originally conceived for the Chicago stage in 2006, at times goes overboard as it toys with standard Shakespearean conventions. For instance, in the opening scene, a DJ, decked out in an Adidas sweat suit, hat worn backwards, spins records in a festive upscale club environment. Oswald, meanwhile, uses a skateboard as his means of transport. While I’m not a total purist, at times this sort of thing can get distracting and make a production too self-conscious. But overall, the bawdy, adulterous, and sinful environment complemented the chaotic nature of the play’s events quite well. As Gloucester summarizes early on, “Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father.”
The production also benefits from a forceful performance by Keach, who skillfully navigates Lear’s transition from an arrogant, nominally powerful, yet insecure king, to a madman wondering aimlessly around the country, and ultimately to somebody who gains a clearer understanding of the world. In some renditions of the play Cordelia (Lear’s daughter who gets disowned because she refuses to make a public show of her love for her father) can come across as shy and saccharine. That isn’t the case here. Instead, played by actress Laura Odeh, Cordelia comes off as a tough and independent woman who is embarrassed by her father’s blindness and doesn’t want to encourage his childish need for flattery. Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotten) and Regan (Kate Arrington), the evil daughters who are awarded for their phony declarations of love, are played as warring femme fatales, using their sexuality as much as deceit to get what they want.
For those in the DC area, the production is playing through the rest of this weekend. Details here.
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