King Lear, Het Zuidelijk Toneel and het Paleis, directed by Simon de Vos. Utrecht, Stadsschouwburg, 2 February 2018.
Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
Like other recent Shakespeare adaptations in the Low Countries, such as Tom Lanoye’s Queen Lear and his Hamlet vs. Hamlet, this production treated the original very freely, changing many features to comment on modern preoccupations. The main issue was the looming disintegration of the European Union because of Brexit. Similar analogies with the division of Lear’s kingdom had been drawn before: two British productions of 2016, featuring respectively Timothy West and Glenda Jackson as Lear, were interpreted by reviewers as concerned with Brexit. This Flemish/Dutch production, predominantly aimed at a young audience, however, went considerably further in turning Lear into an allegory of current politics. This called for many changes of the text and plot: the resemblance between Lear’s decision and Brexit may be obvious, but so are the differences. Whereas Lear is an autocratic ruler, modern politicians are restrained by democratic checks and balances; the centrifugal forces that threaten the EU come not from the political centre but from the periphery. To bridge these discrepancies, Shakespeare’s plot was radically rewritten. Lear is still an autocratic ruler, but rather than dividing the realm himself, he calls for a referendum on the issue, in spite of his pride in having built up a unified Empire with open borders and unprecedented prosperity, a “laboratory” that the entire world is looking towards. The reason for his foolish decision is his anger at Cordelia’s refusal to join her sisters in praising his political achievement, because she demands a turn towards democracy. The referendum, predictably, divides the realm, with Goneril and Regan ruling one part each.
This infusion of the plot with modern concepts and matching terminology is only the beginning of the thorough-going modernisation of Lear’s world. Lear’s decision to step back in favour of his daughters is framed as an attempt to further women’s emancipation. The storm on the heath is shaped as an organ playing crescendo until suddenly part of the roof collapses, and an avalanche of clothes and cardboard boxes descends, in an evocation of the boat refugee crisis. Regan complained that her father had saddled her generation with a debt crisis and melting ice caps; whereas Edgar, an unworldly philosophy graduate with a pigtail, made a singularly ineffective political speech pleading for taxation reforms to overcome the gap between the kingdom’s rich north and poor south. After his suicide attempt, Gloucester asked whether he himself should not be allowed to decide whether he wished to live on, in an allusion to the national debate on euthanasia. And so it went on: we heard of protests against globalisation, of the rise of populism, of the meat industry and of bans on unfiltered cigarettes. Surprisingly, this thorough-going rewriting to make every aspect of the production relevant to some modern debate or other did not result in a total abandonment of Shakespeare’s text, which was still recognisable amidst the additional dialogue. Stylistic discontinuities were avoided because Shakespeare’s early-modern English had been translated into modern Dutch to begin with.
Particularly challenging to modern adapters of King Lear is its misogyny. Here, the daughters were not characterised as wicked from the beginning; rather, the opening tableau showed them sitting together amicably, reminiscing about their youth and playing girlish games. It was only when they were introduced to the world of politics that their natures started to show, or possibly to develop: given power, Regan and Goneril gradually turned into bloodthirsty tyrants. Still, they were no worse than Cornwall or than Edmund. The latter was an evil genius, motivated by having been called a bastard from childhood onwards: the last kid to call him that in school had had to go and look for his teeth in the dust. Unlike her sisters, Cordelia never develops into a full-fledged politician: uncompromisingly, she demands more democracy, and ignores Kent’s pleas to work with him for political compromises with her father. After being denounced by Lear, however, she is brutally murdered by Edmund (using a microphone) after rejecting his advances. It is only when Lear announces to Regan that he is seriously ill (“I have cancer”), and Regan collapses in hysterical laughter, that the spirit of Cordelia appears again in the background, as the personification of charity. Regan and Goneril, meantime, go from bad to worse, using their sexual attractiveness to get their way: Goneril to quell any moral objections on the part of her husband, Albany, Regan by luring Cornwall into a threesome with Edmund, then having her husband strangled by her lover while sitting astride him so he is defenceless. In the end, it is Edmund that dispatches both Regan and Goneril, casually killing them with a knock on the head, after determining that he really wants neither of them. In his nihilism, he has lost all lust for life, and he actually invites his brother Edmund to come and kill him, in turn, by ignominiously strangling him from behind.
At this point it felt as if the dramaturg had run out of ideas on how to wind up the plot, and rather arbitrarily multiplied the atrocities with which the original is already so rife. Still, even if at times the imposed modern relevance made the play somewhat heavy-handed and preachy, the production had some real strengths, too, particularly its visual qualities. The opening scene with Lear’s three daughters was the epitome of innocence and harmony, as they sat upstage, leaning towards each other, in a close triangular formation. A later scene evoked the political setting by a dynamic choreography: a dozen or so well-dressed professionals paraded across the stage, busy with their papers and cell phones, as a well-oiled machine. They were on their way to parliament, to vote on a number of amendments. The sense of merry busyness was undermined somewhat when they subsequently walked backwards, retracing their steps: had all their efforts actually led to anything? Mean time, huge grey screens were let down from above, ostensibly to announce the poll results, but mostly suggesting the growing division of the kingdom, as they divided the stage into sectors. Yet this was still orderly, compared to the stage picture resulting from the storm, after the referendum: the total chaos as the debris was scattered over the stage from above was a visual equivalent of the way Lear, and his realm, had lost all coherence by one disastrous decision. Ultimately, the survivors walked round in a circle, which became a dance of death when Edmund, outside the circle, first picked off his two paramours as they paraded past, and then his old blinded father. No-one paid any notice but all just milled on, while Cordelia, the spirit of Charity, sat helplessly in the middle, wrapped in the UNHCR flag. From the imperfect order of a regulated state to the total chaos of an amoral rubbish heap: those were the chief images of the production that stick in one’s memory.