Sunday, November 9, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Even the Fool Is Hung" (on King Lear)

even the fool is hung
by Douglas Messerli

William Shakespeare King Lear / Globe Theater company, Santa Monica, the Broad Stage of Santa Monica College / the performance I attended was on November 8, 2014
William Shakespeare King Lear (New York: Penguin Books, 1958).

Entering a theater production of King Lear where the actors are seen schmoozing with audience members while a woman on accordion pounds out a rendition of what appears to be a polka just before the actors join together in a kind of British-like chantey combined with an Irish clog dance, might distress even the most open-minded of Shakespeare admirers, or, at least, bring him to wonder whether he entered the wrong door. 
     I suppose the British Globe Theatre company could simply not afford to bring over a full cast to the States, doubling up—sometimes in very odd combinations—on most of the characters apart from Lear (Joseph Marcell), the Earl of Kent (Bill Nash), and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat), demanding that Bethan Culllinane play both Cordelia and the Fool and John Stahl trip over his triple billing as the Duke of Gloucester, the Duke of Albany, and the Doctor! 
    Fortunately, I’d read previous reviews by both The New York Times’ Ben Brantley and Los Angeles Times’s Charles McNaulty, which prepared me, accordingly, for some of this production’s eccentricities. In Shakespeare’s day there probably was much more song and dance performed at interludes only scantily related to the text. The theater’s lights were left burning (only slightly turned down) to give the sense of the daylight performances of the original play. And, I am sure that the wide-mix of theater-going types in Shakespeare’s day resulted in a much more raucous audience behavior—although I primly resisted the audience’s clap-along response to the clog-like dancing and was frankly offended by the gaggle of college girls sitting behind us—all currently attending a Shakespeare course at Santa Monica College—who had not yet mastered the decorum of sitting quietly through an entire performance, or, for that matter, any part of it!

     I even suffered through the definitely smaller-than-life gestures of actor Joseph Marcell, who, although playing in previous Shakespearian and serious theater productions, is best known for his situation comedy TV appearances such as in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. At least Marcell, contrary to the usual pattern of non-professional Shakespearian actors, made no attempt to outshout Lear’s already soniferous wailing; but his sometimes quiet agitations also lacked intensity. Watching this production, it became clearer to me that, in fact, Lear is one of the few stage plays that might benefit from a brilliant video or H.D. production, which, with its close up camera views, might liberate the actors from their stage-bound histrionics, permitting them to utter what sometimes appear as banner-headline-like pronouncements with a more intense panoply of emotional responses.

     For the most part, the actors in this production tried hard to give us a facsimile of a more professional Shakespeare production. Certainly, Nash as Kent, Mugnaioni as Edgar, and Stahl as Gloucester regularly performed their roles, if not brilliance, with at least panache. Although she performed decently as Cordelia, Bethan Cullinane, with her high and often shrill voice, did not come off so well in the demanding role of the Fool. The Fool’s role is a difficult one, since he not only has some of the very cleverest of lines but must present himself as a kind youthful jester dancing at the very edge of Lear’s temper, often surrounded by figures such as Lear, Edgar, and Gloucester who are all suffering from various forms of madness which are linguistically expressed in a manner not so radically different from his comic jibes. Particularly in those scenes when the actor had not only to compete with those others but with the sounds of the boisterous storm, the Fool’s wit was lost on the elderly ears, including mine, attending the Broad Stage’s matinee production.
     At the risk of sounding like a sexist, I need report that the other two women of this Lear, Gwendolen Chatfield as Goneril and Rafaat as Regan, cloaked their characters’ ferocious behavior behind scolding and often explicably violent outrages, coming into their own only in their (explicable, to me, even after recently re-reading Shakespeare’s play) battle for Edmund’s love. The evil of these two harridans lies at the very center of Shakespeare’s play, without which the King would have no purpose to rage throughout the countryside, nor reason for Gloucester to lose his sight and wander so pitiably the very edge of the Dover cliffs. 
     Accordingly, the weakness of these two actors resulted in a kind of void in a world of otherwise careening, out-of-kilter suns and moons. The whole issue of the foolishness of the aged, the blindness of one generation to the other, and the inevitable battles between son, daughter, and father all depends upon the pretense of their logical reactions to the absurdity of paternal demands. If we are meant to hate these harpies, one must also imagine these daughters having not only to endure their father’s growing dotage (today expressed in terms such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) on top of daily entertaining a hundred of his drunken and equally deluded friends. Even if they were not liars plotting to do in the old man, they might be given some credence at least to making, as they argue, reasonable demands. The entire Lear, accordingly, hinges on our gradual recognition that what seems reasonable is, in fact, a kind of madness that is equal to their father’s, and, that, in fact, his own lack of perspective may have been inherited by at least these two offspring. Given the fact that these actors were not up to that great task, Lear, in this production, is left in complete undress, without even a method to his madness, with “nothing, nothing, nothing.”
      And always, in any production of the great playwright’s masterpiece, the director has a near impossible task in making things believable, particularly during the last few scenes when, almost faster than our minds can assimilate the action, the bodies begin to pile up. It is no accident that, after one daughter is reported as having poisoned the other before killing herself, and Lear comes stumbling in with the body of the dead Cordelia, that the messenger’s report of Edmund’s death brings forth Albany’s remarks: “That’s but a trifle here.”
     No man, not even a warrior on the battlefield, might be able to make sense of so many meaningless murders, and Lear is explicably unhinged in the act, holding his now newly-beloved Cordelia to his chest at the very moment he whines “And my poor fool is hanged.”  
     Obviously, everyone in this play has been a kind of fool; as Lear has just castigated the remaining loyalists (Kent, Edgar, and Albany) standing nearby, “A plague upon you murderers, traitors all.” The very fact that the only remedy for foolishness, surviving through laughter, is itself swallowed up in hate, leaves us with such a dark view that not even the potential survivors can possibly redeem the future. With his leave-taking—“I have a journey, sir, shortly to go. / My master calls me; I must not say no”—Kent exits the stage presumably to join the King in death. Even the younger Edgar realizes that he will not live near as long as Lear nor experience so much sorrow. 
     For the Globe Theatre players to rise up from the dead, accordingly, and dance an Irish-like jig, is a travesty of the play itself. We do not need a bromide to help us realize, as we exit the theater, that we will go on living despite our foolish lives outside the world the play revealed to us. Finally, since the fool has died, I refused to leave the theater with a smile upon my face!

Los Angeles, November 9, 2014