October 17, 2014
For contemporary Western minds, the faculties required to appreciate Elizabethan theatre as the Elizabethans did it are no different than those involved in learning how to hear the microtones of Carnatic music or to understand the meaning of a foreign language’s untranslatable idiom. Its Englishness does not make it any easier to comprehend; if anything, it tricks us into a comfort zone that is unfounded. We do not see theatre as those from Shakespeare’s day, largely because they did not see it; they heard it.
When one attends King Lear put on by Shakespeare’s Globe, two people are watching: today’s theatre consumer, hungry for definitive portrayals of the psychological turmoil of one of the Bard’s greatest tragedies, and an anthropologist, trying desperately to “get it,” in a sense, becoming an actor from his or her seat. At best, we can appreciate the disconnection between how two eras of humanity see the same material, in a case study on what it means to see Shakespeare, our contemporary.
It is wonderful to be confronted so merrily with that which we would not expect from a production acclaimed by the Times to represent “how Shakespeare was meant to be done.” The company performs in a modest wooden frame, resembling a cottage. The color scheme remains earthy and unadorned, save a blazing red curtain used simply and powerfully in the storm sequence midway through. There is no set beyond this, and there is no attempt to hide the actors providing special effects on and offstage. The production has the feeling of children putting on a variety show in their backyards in a refreshingly inventive way. It represents the multi-dimensional craftiness in storytelling of the player in place of the singular task of an actor’s singular suspension of disbelief.
It’s not all foreign, however. There are some elements we can quite viscerally absorb. Joseph Marcell as Lear is often boisterous and comic, intensifying the impact of the tragic ending. The way he carries Cordelia’s dead body onto the stage has an alarming fragility. Her weight dangles from Lear’s arms, practically spilling to the floor as father trudges through his cries that erupt more like an asthmatic attack. To hold her in such a precariously distant yet tender way reflects her initial inability to show Lear her love for him in the first place, sparking the action of the entire play.
Most gratifying are the moments that satisfy both the Elizabethan and contemporary sensibilities – i.e. the tactic of double casting. In a play that already incorporates disguise, as with Edgar and Poor Tom, Shakespeare’s Globe incorporates an economical distribution of characters to actors, as was the practice of the touring companies from that time. To see Bethan Cullinane portray both Fool and Cordelia so fully places the acting’s effectiveness on the transitions between characters rather than the characters themselves. What for theatregoers several hundred years ago was practicality is for us today a representation of the breakdown of identity, as it becomes difficult to tell who is double casted, and who is disguised, as we begin to form relationships between the characters assigned to one player.
To see the production fully realized in the period practice of touring outdoors would have been one thing, but the Globe’s set is awkwardly placed in the proscenium of Skirball, whose houselights are left on to simulate the daylight gives a museum-like sensation against which the players work valiantly, preventing it from deadening the impact of their performances. Between acts, the ensemble sings lively settings of the plot’s ominous detail, not as a cheery interpretation of the material, but in celebration of the gift of they story they have to tell.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews