It has been said, scathingly, by dispirited critics, that Shakespeare’s King Lear is simply too big for the stage. It is impossible to do the play’s sweeping themes justice in a single production.
Maybe so. But I just sat in the breeze at Forest Park and watched the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival mount a stunning production. The legend of a British king in the eighth century BCE is told, powerfully, as a modern tale set in a country in North Africa. Every cast member is a person of color. The music acts as narrator, its strong beat propelling the story into rage, raw need, and madness, then softening into melancholy. Sirens remind you, in a flash, of contemporary injustice and oppression. Shakespeare has never felt so universal.
As King Lear, Tony Award winner André De Shields begins with a thin composure and lets us watch the shell crack, the fury blaze. His dementia, that bloodless term we have learned to use, is dramatized with the exaggeration that royalty brings to scandal. But his madness is, at base, no larger than the panic that has clawed at my friends’ fathers, mothers, husbands, when Alzheimer’s or some other malady invaded their minds.
And Lear’s abdication of responsibility and desperate need for flattery are no larger than what happens on the political stage in our own country.
His throne is the set’s centerpiece. My husband recognized it and explained in a whisper: A brilliant set designer chose to reproduce the throne Jean-Bedel Bokassa had made for his 1977 coronation as emperor of what until then was the Central African Republic. Bokassa spent a quarter of the national budget on the ceremony, which was modeled on Napoleon’s coronation in 1804. He then disinherited his eldest son and chose one of his younger children to be Crown Prince.
Lear is too big to be contained—but so are greed, power, and despair. This production is not a cheesy attempt to “make relevant” by dreaming up cool costumes and picking a fun place and time. This Lear simply uses a new context to mine the play’s strongest themes, because they are already relevant. Decency is often disinherited. Good people are deprived of their rightful legacy. The best often die young.
There is nothing so capricious as a ruler who knows their power is precarious. Lear knows his mind is crumbling: “My wits begin to turn,” he says, his voice shaking. We speak of people with scant income as the precariat, their survival fragile, the struggle renewed every morning. But excess can be precarious, too. And so can sanity.
Even in his extremity, we recognize Lear. I am often as superstitious and prone to denial as the old king: “When we are sick in fortune,—often the surfeit of our own behavior,—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars.” How often do I need a raging storm outside to unlock whatever tempest I carry within? And Lord, do I need a Fool. Late-night comedy does its part, as do old friends, but really, we should all have somebody neutral and smartass who will watch us make stupid choices and teach us to laugh at our folly—and correct it. I suspect most life coaches lack the requisite sense of humor.
As Shakespeare Festival director Tom Ridgely told St. Louis Public Radio, the play is about what happens when people are cut off from one another—and how they are constantly asking for, and receiving, forgiveness. Beneath all the intrigue lie simple, healing truths.
Yet “Lear is essentially impossible to be represented on a stage,” Charles Lamb maintains in 1811. “King Lear is too huge for the stage,” A.C. Bradley writes a century later. It is easy to understand why someone would sigh and say this play is simply too big. In less than three hours, Shakespeare confronts us with not only death but mental illness, homelessness, (feigned) disability, nakedness on every level, tortuous questions of legacy, Lear’s loss of faith, greed’s corrupting influence, familial tension, the absurdity of our behavior, the ravages of aging, and the vulnerability of a royal daughter whose marriage must be arranged.
Cordelia, too, I recognize as my ideal. Because I grew up without a father, she makes me wistful. Her love is clear-eyed and luminous, her silence brave. In worse moments, though, I am exasperated by her purity. Why not humor the old man and lavish him with verbal assurances? Sometimes I wonder if we are too caught up in her innocence. She is the archetypal daughter, her voice gentle and low, her love steadfast. We forget that doing good can also be cunning. By adhering to principle and getting herself at least temporarily disinherited, Cordelia has neatly escaped being wed to a man who would have her only for her money. In this production, Lear actually stands her on a chair so the Duke of Burgundy can examine her flesh. Shakespeare never thought women should be subservient, mere objects for men’s pleasure. His women have spirit. They know that the character of the man they wed will matter more than money. And Cordelia has devised a neat guarantee of character.
Shakespeare reworked and refined an old, anonymous play, The Chronicle History of King Leir, weaving insight and grace into the lines. He would not be the least bit surprised to learn that the legend lasted more than two millennia, or that his words could carry themes unknown to him and make sense in a futuristic setting in a country he had never seen. Nothing can make this play strange enough to hide the truths, and the pain, we all recognize and recoil from. Lear lets us be God’s spies, giving us a vantage point from which we can see our own human nature humbled, seeking, erratic.
Our response reveals us. It makes plain our attitudes toward age, toward vulnerability, toward reconciliation.
“To see Lear acted,—to see an old man tottering about the stage with a walking-stick, turned out of doors by his daughters in a rainy night, has nothing in it but what is painful and disgusting,” Lamb writes. “We want to take him into shelter and relieve him. That is all the feeling which the acting of Lear ever produced in me.”
Could he say that of De Shields’ Lear? I cannot. His performance summons emotions too complex for words. Maybe the play is too big to capture all of its own themes in one sitting—so what? By producing it again and again, we can capture something new with every iteration. A nearly 3,000-year-old story can be told in a new place, from a different point of view, and lose nothing in translation.
We cannot be doomed, if truth can travel this far.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.