King Lear, dir. & libretto by Joke Hoolboom @ Utrecht, Fort Rijnauwen, July 2019Tragedy

  • Paul Franssen

King Lear, dir. & libretto by Joke Hoolboom. Holland Opera, Jong Nederlands Blazers Ensemble and “155” dance group. Utrecht, Fort Rijnauwen, 12 July 2019.

Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)

Regan (Kelly Poukens) and Goneril (Ekaterina Levental) triumphant on the upper playing level. © Ben van Duin.

Holland Opera, formerly known as Xynix, has a long history of musical adaptations of Shakespeare, particularly for the young, including children’s versions of Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew. Since 2005, however, their focus has changed from children’s musical theatre to work for a more general public, though accessibility remains one of their priorities. This year, they performed King Lear, in an English text largely based on Shakespearean fragments, with Dutch surtitles. The programme booklet spoke of Giuseppe Verdi’s plans for an opera on the basis of Antonio Somma’s libretto, but Holland Opera’s plot involved a far more radical reworking than Somma’s. The music was partly by Verdi, lifted from different works—no music written for Re Lear survives—partly by Fons Merkies, a Dutch composer mainly known for his film scores. Joke Hoolboom’s libretto condensed the plot and the dramatis personae of Shakespeare’s King Lear to the utmost, combining several characters and episodes into one, thus reducing the cast to Lear, his daughters, and Edmund, as well as a chorus that commented on the events. Lear and Gloucester became one character, as did Cordelia and Edgar, while Edmund merged with Oswald. Kent, the fool, and the daughters’ husbands had all disappeared, as had the political implications of the plot, wars and marriages of state.

At times, Hoolboom’s condensed plot seemed slightly puzzling and illogical—Lear deliberately blinding himself in his grief seemed not just implausible but was also easy to miss—but in an opera such flaws matter less than in a play. Besides, it did make sense to merge the plots of Lear and Gloucester, which are so obviously parallel. Also the two duels involving Edgar, once against Oswald, once against Edmund, were merged into a single fight in which Cordelia/Edgar, disguised as Poor Tom/the peasant kills Edmund, but is herself mortally wounded in the process—which brings in a motif from a third sword fight, that between Cornwall and his servant. Most importantly, the condensed plot became more of an Aristotelian unity, as there was one clear original conflict that motivated everything that followed: it is Edmund’s frustration at being denied his birth right that turns him into the machiavel who brings about the destruction of Lear and his family.

This production of Lear took place in the open air, in one of the nineteenth-century fortresses to the east of Utrecht. The extensive grounds, with their undulating terrain and ancient buildings, offered an ideal backdrop for such a production, although some scenery had been added. In front of the audience, a kind of bandstand had been erected for the orchestra. On top of that, there was an upper playing area representing Lear’s court. A ramp connected this upper area to the lower playing area at ground level, representing life outside the court. At the top of the ramp, there was a gate which was sometimes open, sometimes locked, depending on who wished to enter the court. In addition, at ground level, stage right, there was a shrine with a flame burning on top, inside a small glass building, suggesting a kind of mausoleum; adjacent to this, a few rusty metal sheets planted in the earth represented tombstones.

This graveyard setting played a role in the prologue. After the chorus had sung their opening lines on storm and thunder, dressed all in black and descending slowly like a funeral cortege, Lear went to pray in the mausoleum, while simultaneously Edmund knelt down before one of the humbler tombstones. The suggestion was, at least in hindsight, that Lear was praying for his deceased wife, Edmund for his mother; for it soon emerged that, in this much condensed plot, Lear doubled as Gloucester, the father of illegitimate Edmund. Edmund then hailed Lear and appealed to him to acknowledge him as his son. Lear, however, dismissed him mockingly, and told him, in a paraphrase of Gloucester’s words to Kent: “Conceiving [begetting] you was good fun.” He refused to grant Edmund a share of his inheritance, which was all for his legitimate daughters. This prologue gave an extra dimension to both characters: Edmund’s malice was motivated by this direct insult, and besides, his praying at his mother’s tomb suggested that at first he cared for something else than just himself and his goddess Nature. Lear remembers his wife, but brings down his fate on himself by his callous dismissal of his bastard son—cf. Gloucester’s relatively good-humoured remark to Kent: “the whoreson must be acknowledged” in Shakespeare’s original. Edmund went off, threatening to take what was withheld from him.

Soon, however, any audience sympathy that Edmund had gained at the outset evaporated, when he started his scheming. Edmund overheard the king having prophetic nightmares of being cast aside by his people, and so he approached him in his half-sleep, presented himself as “a little voice in your head,” and suggested a solution to Lear: why not give your legacy to your daughters now, to be rid of your burden, and give most to her that claims she loves you most. He even managed to make Lear believe that he had thought up this idea himself, in his dream. Thus, again, external motivation was provided for an action that in Shakespeare remains irrational: Lear’s foolish love test is the result of Edmund’s prompting.

Lear was enthusiastic about the plan, and proud of having thought it up himself (or so he thought) and summoned his daughters. The two elder girls arrived in a decadent open black sportscar, Cordelia, more modestly, on foot. Yet, apart from a penchant for luxury, there was no indication yet of the elder sisters’ innate wickedness. When Lear put the test to them, they of course flattered him fulsomely—Regan asking for time to deliberate, then simply parroting her sister—and were invited to join Lear on the upper level, while Cordelia was stopped by the fence at the gate. The elder sisters’ character was only fully revealed—or brought into being?—when they were subsequently seduced by Edmund. While the chorus sang a chilling “Dies Irae,” the day of vengeance, from Verdi’s Requiem, he reappeared, accompanied by four sinister motorcyclists clad in black, his “friends,” who turned out to be acrobatic dancers. Goneril, standing on the upper playing area, was impressed by the power exuded by this handsome stranger, embodied by the dancers, and fell for his charms. Tutored by Edmund, she became convinced that Lear’s bequest of his legacy before his death was a way for him to put a claim on her, and she began to resent her father. She turned away Lear when he came to claim her hospitality: now he found the gate at the top of the ramp closed against himself. Regan, too, fell for Edmund, expressing her fatal adoration of his dark charms in words derived from Shakespeare’s sonnet “My love is as a fever”:

What miracle has made you see the light?

Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

What power!

What grace!

Made you see the light!

She, too, disowned her father as a consequence. The ramp was then altogether disconnected from the upper area, symbolizing the total breach in the royal family, leaving Lear and Cordelia below, the two wicked sisters on the upper level.

Lear was now an outcast, suddenly and inexplicably blind, roaming the ground level playing area and seeking shelter in the mausoleum. Then he met Cordelia, also roving the grounds in disguise as Poor Tom. Having taken on the characteristics of Edgar, she promised to take her father to a cliff, where they never arrived. The focus now shifted to her two sisters, both clad in scarlet, who were fighting each other over the love of Edmund, and ended up strangling one another. Meanwhile Cordelia/Edgar/the peasant challenged Edmund as a traitor, fighting with her cudgel, with the result that Edmund was killed, Cordelia mortally wounded. Lear, realizing what had happened, then held the dying Cordelia in his lap, in an inverse Pietà posture, and mourned his one good daughter. Ultimately the four “corpses” got up again, and one by one they filed through the mausoleum, which was now filled with smoke, and lined up behind it, in an area that seemed to symbolize the hereafter.

Lear remained alone, sitting on the grass, lamenting his fate as the only survivor. The chorus sang a concluding dirge, stressing the consequences of Lear’s folly: “No child, no home. … it’s darkness all around.”

With its modern elements (the sports car and motorcycles) and fast pace, and a duration of less than two hours (without a break), this production was relatively light and accessible also to young people, who were also in evidence among the audience. The singing and orchestral accompaniment were first-rate. The costume design, too, was modern: the actresses all wore trousers, suggesting emancipated women, which was white at first, but the two elder daughters changed to red clothing once they had been seduced by their half-brother Edmund. The chorus wore black, as did the sinister motorcyclists (with a red stripe); Edmund started out in white but changed to black to suggest his increasing wickedness, while Lear was in white throughout. This seeming schematicism was offset, however, by a more nuanced moral evaluation, where Lear himself bore most of the blame for the downfall of his entire family, which he himself survives only as a blinded wreck sitting among the ruins.


The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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Paul Franssen

Author: Paul Franssen

Paul Franssen (1955) teaches at the English Department of Utrecht University. His main research and teaching interests are Shakespeare and the early modern period, South African Literature, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. He has co-edited a few books on Shakespearean matters, and is the author of Shakespeare’s Literary Lives: The Author as Character in Fiction and Film (Cambridge University Press, 2016).