King Lear @ Konzert Theater, Bern, Switzerland, 2014Adaptation

  • Markus Marti

YEAR OF SHAKESPEARE: King Lear, in 80 minutes: Konzert Theater Bern

(director: Lisa Nielebock, stage design: Sascha Gross, translation [or rather adaptation]: Werner Buhss).

Kultur - Theater

Konzert Theater Bern presents a Lear that probably rates an entry in the Guinness book of records for brevity (if we disregard the Lear sequence in The Complete Shakespeare [abridged]): The performance lasts less than 90 minutes. This is, of course, extremely enticing for people who would like to enjoy a meal afterwards or for tourists who are just passing Berne.

But this, unfortunately, remains the only laudable thing in this production. Brevity might have been the soul of wit, but there was not much wit to witness in Bern.

The heavy cuts were meant to turn (and indeed turned) Lear into a therapeutic psychodrama (“Familiendrama”). Nielebock needs only eight characters, who have to stay on stage from the very beginning to the very end. But such a “Huis-Clos situation” (Brigitta Niederhauser, Der Bund, 14.10.2013) of eight characters does not work for the plot of this particular play, where some people are banned, some married off to France, some thrown out into the storm and turn mad etc., but nothing like this ever happens, all remain on stage and lounge on their sofa or armchair. Why do all the other characters listen to a monologue, why do they nod approvingly or shake their heads disapprovingly? Is this all just a party game?

Constantly on stage are:

King Lear        Stéphane Maeder

Goneril            Sophie Hottinger

Regan             Mona Kloos

Cordelia           Julia Gräfner

Gloucester       Jürg Wisbach

Edgar               Michael von Burg

Edmund           Pascal Goffin

Kent                Joey Zimmermann

That’s it. All other characters have been cut.

As there is no break, the stage remains the same for the whole performance. As there is no curtain, we can already guess what we are going to see when we get to our seats. We are in a rather luxurious living room with a a kitchen part and a bath; it could be a flat that only consists of this one, generously open room, it could be a loft or a penthouse suite – if there was not also a flight of stairs that leads up to the left into empty space (nothing) and might suggest further rooms.

A party is about to begin. Most of the people are very casually dressed. Lear – it must be him, he must be the host – has the corks pop. Seeing him, one might think of Hemingway in his best times – or of Hemingway, as he would have liked to look like in his best times. He drinks whisky, of course. Stéphane Maeder revealed the production’s concept in an interview before the first night: “Our Lear is an entrepreneur in his mid fifties” (Bund). Gloucester in his bathrobe appears to be even a bit younger and more appealing: He looks like Hugh Hefner in the 1970ies, and he seems to be aware of his male sex appeal, because he disrobes in front of the host and the six other party guests and the audience before he moves proudly towards the shower at the back, while the others still sip their champagne or drown their whisky. Goneril and Regan are slim, modern businesswomen, almost a bit out of place in their outfit, if this were a swinger club or a fitness club. There is a kind of stepper or cross-trainer or whatever this is called, which Regan uses from time to time to keep her fit body even fitter. Cordelia is clearly an outsider. She is a teenie who shows her disdain for everything around her by watching TV, eating junk food and getting fatter all the time. She is also showing her otherness by her clothes (outworn track suit, gym shoes) – a coach potato rather than a royal princess. Later on she partly assumes the role of the fool, she puts some female fool’s costume over her neglected outfit and throws some streamers, but even then she never manages to be really critical, funny or witty.

I have always had problems keeping Edgar and Edmund apart (without looking up the text I never know who of them is the bad bastard and who the loving son), in this production my problem remained, as the actors are exchangeable types and they are dressed in the same way – probably remainders of a casting for The Comedy of Errors.

After a little bit of party talk Lear suddenly decides to distribute his country among his daughters, the reason being his “old age”. Everybody is astonished – the audience as well as the characters on stage. We all presume that he plans a journey around the world with a lot of big game hunting, adventures and fun. Astonishingly, there is not much to be distributed – those who get it, take it without much ado. What he has to distribute are three small cassette-like parcels, maybe a VHS-cassette or a box containing 5-7 CDs, maybe some chocolates. The daughters should show how much they love their father (to get the better films or chocolates, perhaps). Cordelia’s refusal to take part in that embarrassing party game provokes her father’s anger, quite an unmotivated anger. But nobody seems to care much anyway, as they all stay in the same room and the party goes on. Lear’s wrath seems more like a perfunctory rendering (routine reading) than a performance.

The whole evening evoked the impression of a concert-like text rehearsal, in which all the actors just spoke their lines without being interested in their character’s problems, apart from occasionally refilling their champagne or whisky.

As the minor characters are cut, Goneril and Regan bite out Gloucester’s eyes, whose playboy era is thus terminated. There is not much to be seen of Lear’s insanity – the discussion about the number of knights he will still be allowed to keep takes up a major part of the short performance, but he is never cast out into a storm, if at all, he is just a little bit tipsy when he says that he is “every inch a king” – after all, he is still the host of this party, and everybody is still in the same room and most of them still on the same seat. Is there a storm outside? Maybe it is a sunny afternoon – if the party began in the morning – or it is night in Hollywood, Las Vegas or New York. But the party has to be over at some point. So everybody kills himself or herself. Not necessarily in the way and not necessarily in the order prescribed by Shakespeare.

Someone takes a table knife, the older girls have, as on suspects, poisoned each other, Cordelia dies of sudden infant death, it seems.

Markus Marti

Author: Markus Marti

Markus Marti is a lecturer in English Literature and Culture at the University of Basel. He has edited Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus for the bilingual Englisch-deutsche Studienausgabe der Dramen Shakespeares, and he is now working on a translation of Macbeth for the same edition. He has also published a trilingual edition of Shakespeare's sonnets with his own High German and Wallissertitsch (a Swiss German Dialect) translations. He is reviewing productions of Shakespeare's plays on Swiss stages for the yearbook of the Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft. He is our Associate Editor for Switzerland.