Late Summer on Brook’s heath

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By Sara Marie Westh

Lear_2

Copyright: Peter Brook (1971)

The images from Peter Brook’s cinematic version of King Lear have been burned onto the retinas of countless Shakespeareans since its release in 1971. The stark landscape of the movie shows a world of mercilessly open space where a grey sky pushes a dark ground down. The beings that people this bleak composition seem trapped between the grey and the dark, becoming shapes that jut out of the ground to be squashed by the immense heavens above. It is a world made for tragedy, for oppression, and for destruction. It makes you glad of the reality you inhabit, if only because it is not the absurd theatre the theatrical characters are trapped in.

My wonder was great when I heard it was filmed in my homeland, for while Denmark gets fairly dark, particularly in the winter, Brook’s brilliant cinematography showed me a country I did not recognise.

The Jute coast, running from the southern border with Germany up to the tip of Jutland, is a breathtakingly open landscape, where low heather brush spreads to the grey dunes, and the dunes bite into a ferocious sea. Rolling hills and flatland divide the territory between them, parting reed-filled mud flats from high, grey dunes. This is not a coast for bathers: the local memory is filled with stories of vessels wrecked metres from the shore, of sailors perishing within sight of their rescuers, and of dunes that yield up sand-bleached bones on windy nights. The Strandingsmuseum St George in Thorsminde (https://strandingsmuseet.dk/en/) on the western coast recounts, in immensely engaging manners, the many stories of shipwreck, salvage, and survival that continue to form part of the local identity. The way the sea has become part of life along the coast is deeply ingrained in the people living there, generations of fishermen remembering generations of friends and family lost at sea. As time passes the seasons and the tide roll on.

It should be apparent that the coast of Jutland is not what could be called cheerful. I have spent many summers there, love it to excess, and know that a substantial part of its beauty lies in its ruthless, windswept dunes, cold water, and white foam. It is, perhaps, a curious place to while away the summer, being short on sunshine and long on gale, but while the sand is grey and cold under an almost oppressively open sky, this is a quiet and tall place that distils a long, bitter history of long, bitter winters into golden heather honey and perfectly pickled herring (the uncontested best is from Thorupstrand (http://www.thorupstrandfisk.dk/) run by a small, flourishing community of fishermen).

It is, maybe, an acquired taste, not unlike Brook’s Lear, which, famously proved divisive among critics.

 

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

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Author:Sara Westh

Sara is a fourth year PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, researching authorial intent in editing Shakespeare by way of philosophy of mind. She has been associate editor for Blogging and Reviewing Shakespeare for a year now, and is thoroughly enjoying herself. She also works for the Shakespeare Institute, the Shakespeare Institute Library, and Shakespeare Survey.

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