Theater Reviews

Laughing as Your Heart Breaks: Shakespeare Globe’s King Lear at NYU’s Skirball


Kim Paffenroth (Iona College)

Perhaps the easiest way to begin reflecting on this production, directed by Bill Buckhurst, would be to state what was immediately obvious to me, and then work from there: Almost nothing I saw on stage was how I would have imagined it, or how I would have presented it myself, if I were director. This is neither praise nor blame, just surprise. But in thinking about the disparity between what was on stage, and my expectations, a pattern quickly and obviously emerges. This production revels constantly, from beginning to end, in a dark humor, essentially expanding the role and outlook of the Fool (or the mad Lear) to subsume the whole play. The play begins and ends with happy, silly songs sung by the cast – which for the end means “resurrecting” Lear (Joseph Marcell) and Cordelia (Bethan Cullinane, who also played the Fool) from the stage to dance about, even bumping hips with one another. (In a thoughtful and useful Q&A after the performance, one of the actors explained this is a Globe tradition, that all performances must end with a full cast jig. Even he admitted, however, that when they are on tour, local audiences often object to this unfamiliar practice.) In addition, there are constant intrusions of whimsical music – almost all the cast members play an instrument on stage at some point. And practically every character laughs at inappropriate moments – and not just chuckles or smirks, but often cackles or guffaws that made me cringe. (I’m only relatively sure Kent (Bill Nash) and Cordelia were the only characters who did not participate in the inappropriate laughter at any point.) The double and triple casting in this limited cast necessitated many comical moments, one of which was deliberately hammed up on stage, with the actor playing Edmund/Oswald/France (Danielle Pirrie) hesitating to don the cap that would indicate he was now supposed to be changing personae, as Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield, who also played Curan) paused to give the line that would show to whom she was supposed to be speaking.

In a scathing review, Charles Isherwood derisively labels all of this “frolicsome” and “informal” and claims that the play never overcomes this liability or distraction. But is this perspective or tone – which I would again claim is already there in many of the speeches of the Fool and Lear – always a liability or impediment to understanding and appreciating this play? Isherwood sounds to me a bit snobbish and myopic to dismiss it too easily. I will admit the disjunction in individual scenes induced in me an almost physical revulsion. At other times it fit the scene rather better than my imagined way of playing the action “straight.” Still others suggested something very deeply insightful into the action of the play: how better in the first scene to make clear that Lear knows Goneril and Regan (Shanaya Raafat) are lying, than to have him shriek with laughter at their professions of “love”? These dramatic choices may be jarring in many places, but in some at least, I think they are brilliant; more importantly, in all cases, I think they were the result of deep reflection on and analysis of the play. (If anything, other changes bothered me just as much, and without a similar sense of them being justified or consistent: the first scene without Cordelia’s asides plays very differently, and much to Cordelia’s detriment, though this production overall depicts a completely unmitigated heroism on her part.)

A brief review of some of the most dramatic scenes, and how this production succeeds or fails at them, may give the reader some sense of its relative strengths. The double casting of Cordelia and the Fool was to me the high point of the production. I’ve discussed this casting many times when teaching the play, but had never experienced the effect of seeing it on stage, and it is stunning, especially in the person of such an actor: of all the cast, Ms. Cullinane (Cordelia/Fool) and Mr. Stahl (Gloucester/Albany) deserved far better than Isherwood’s backhanded compliment of “competent… rarely anything more.” Both were brilliant, and especially so was Ms. Cullinane’s ability to go between the retiring Cordelia of the first scene; to the manic, bawdy Fool (and played with such physicality, she spends much of her time crawling, climbing, jumping, or being dragged across stage – only Edgar’s role — played by Alex Mugnaioni, who also played Cornwall and Burgundy– was more physical); to the militant, transformed Cordelia of Act IV (perhaps the one scene that would contradict how I began my review – Cordelia as Queen of France, striding forward like an Antigone or a Joan of Arc, was exactly how I’d always imagined her).

The casting of Lear was at first confusing to me – and not at all because the actor is the only black person on stage, but because of his height: everyone on stage except Cordelia towers over him. Again, the dark comedy intruded, as at several points, he’s given a step stool to stand on to shout orders, and it really does give him this comical appearance, as though “Napoleon complex” should be a part of the play’s analysis. But by the “Reason not the need!” speech, with Goneril and Regan ganging up on him, his stature served very well to make clear his personal diminishment and increase the pathos we feel for him. The actors playing his two evil daughters are fairly tall women to begin with, they were in heels, and in that scene they were clad in identical costumes, all of it working to increase the pain and tragedy of the “What need one?” confrontation, which I think always is in danger of devolving into some pathetic version of a drunken brawl at a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It was a brilliant case of making a virtue of necessity, and the scene was far more dramatic and nightmarish than I had ever imagined it.

Similar, in terms of this production’s success at portraying the daughters’ evil, was the earlier confrontation between Lear and Goneril, the “All licensed fool” accusation she makes over his followers’ supposedly raucous, drunken misbehavior. The staging makes it quite clear that Lear’s followers are not “of choice and rarest parts” – one is passed out drunk on the table as Lear makes this pronouncement. And yet there is never any question here that Goneril is completely unforgivable in her treatment of her father. Her body language throughout makes her monstrous self-absorption completely clear – even the kiss with Edmund is about her pleasure and needs, and the violence she intends or perpetrates against her sister and husband are presaged completely here with how she can rationalize cruelty to her father with icy precision and self-righteousness. It is entirely possible for her actions to be justified but utterly evil – a point that is debatable when reading the play, but not when experiencing this production.

The two most dramatic moments in the middle of the play illustrate well the extremes of what this production accomplishes. The storm scene, enacted with only primitive special effects of shaking metal sheets and flapping curtains, was mesmerizing – not quite minimalist, but with just enough dramatic background to foreground the actors’ work. But the eye-gouging scene was a huge disappointment, a self-indulgent, overdone mess, seemingly dreamed up by someone who’d looked too much to the old Itchy and Scratchy show for inspiration on how to depict extreme violence and sadism. It filled us neither with horror at the villains, nor sympathy for their victim (Gloucester played by John Stahl, who also played Albany and the Doctor). It’s the one scene where the audience should not be chuckling – and I’m not even sure this time if the laughter was intentional. But whether it was or not, it worked against the scene’s effect and purpose and wasted one of the pivotal scenes of the play.

Likewise, the final scene embraces both success and failure. When Lear enters carrying Cordelia’s body, he is just in too much danger of dropping her for the scene to be effective (or at least, for it to be effective as tragedy). This weird effect – again, almost weirdly comical, given the overall context of this production – is exacerbated by his holding her in a very awkward posture (one leg, one arm, and her head flopping around – the actor really only had a good grip on her one leg and one arm) for way too long. But once Lear collapses to the stage, his final lines and his caressing of Cordelia are as they should be – heartbreaking, sanctified, a sacrifice upon which the gods themselves would throw incense. (At least until the actors get up and start dancing around – a violation of a sacred moment I won’t forgive too easily.)

So I will have to disagree, or qualify Isherwood’s most sarcastic description of the production: “It’s a bit like putting one of Goya’s disturbing black paintings in a Hello Kitty frame.” Hello Kitty is not funny, and certainly not darkly so – it’s just cute. Perhaps some of the songs in this production can be legitimately accused of being merely cute, but mostly I see the dramatic choices here as a legitimate playing out of a central theme of the play – the darkly comic folly of human life, one that does not end as a comedy for Lear, but as a tragedy. Perhaps a better (though still imperfect) analogy would be to say it’s like watching a double feature of Doctor Strangelove and Se7en, two equally dark films, each in its own way, but usually experienced as having wildly different effects on us – one with slightly nervous or bitter laughter, the other with complete, crushing despair and revulsion. But the particular juxtaposition I saw achieved on stage in November helped me understand the play, and human sin, better than I had before. What more I could expect from a performance, I cannot imagine.

Photo Credits: Lear (Joseph Marcell) and Gloucester (Rawiri Paratene). Globe Theater, London. By Ellie Kurttz. Courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe Press.


Categories: Theater Reviews

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