(photo credit: Guntar Kravis)
Lear-ing at the Experience
Text falls by the wayside
by Jason Booker
Director Philip McKee’s Lear, offers a modern take that contemporizes and creates a visceral experience of the Shakespeare play using only four actresses. McKee employs a phenomenal bag of tricks here: one can rarely be bored by the text because so little of it is used and the words themselves are not the focus.
Intentionally, the audience is overwhelmed
To compensate, the play’s theatricality is then brandished about like a madman with a weapon: wild, abrupt, patterned, resembling our titular king. The show begins while only a sliver of stage can be seen through the drawn red curtains as preparations are made for the performance, the audience moves partway through the performance rendering the text of that scene irrelevant and a dance performed to earlier sounds of the play chronicles a crucial moment as the sounds build in intensity to become deafening, as some of the audience covered their ears. Intentionally, the audience is overwhelmed, discomfited and forced to recognize their own participation in this performance as Lear’s clothing is gradually cut away with a pair of scissors by the cast and crew as Clare Coulter becomes a statue.
A series of images and innovative concepts, this Lear challenges how an audience views the play – or hears it, as James Bunton’s remarkable sound design makes the echoing sound of cups placed on a table significant – as the narrative is gently taken apart. This version is about experiences and a performance at the centre of it that astonishes.
Coulter bravely exposes herself emotionally and physically as Lear. She stands up proudly at the start, giggling as she peaks through the curtain, before crumbling once stripped of her paper crown and her vestments – though the audience too watches their possessions be taken away, hidden under a tarp for more than half of the play. Coulter locates the emotional core of this character in a production that rarely permits emotions to enter the picture: an older actor surrounded by the gimmicks of the young, possibly confused but playing along gamely as does her character. The elderly fool emerged during the bows as Coulter returned, thinking her castmates were following, only to discover she was alone. She bowed, then ran backstage to fetch them, never to return.
Repeating the scene of how much Lear is loved by his offspring emphasizes the madness of this falling ruler but also allowed Coulter to showcase her authority and command of the script, how the whole play teeters on madness. Having Coulter cover herself with a gray goop disturbs but sets up the brilliant final effect of the skeleton slowly walking through the emptied theatre, dripping dust and disintegrating before our eyes.
As Cordelia, given so little stage time, Lindsay Clark experiences the only connection to Coulter, gently washing her face before their kneeling scene – the recognition that pain has been caused and that, underneath it, these two are family. What a touching moment as the trappings of the theatre finally wash away, allowing the audience to empathize with this intimate experience. Maybe the theatrical devices were needed, maybe not – but once the play returns to its roots, even this hater of Shakespeare was moved.