King Lear, translated and directed by Jack Nieborg, Shakespeare Theater Diever, The Netherlands, 8 September 2018.
Reviewed by by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
This year, the Diever amateur theatre had chosen King Lear for their annual production. In line with some other recent stage adaptations of Shakespeare plays, the tragedy was set in the world of the circus. A sign telling the audience how to behave during the open-air performance (“do not open your umbrella”) included the line, “Do not feed the elephant”. Obviously, bringing a real elephant on stage was beyond the means of the company, but some of the flourishes sounding from off-stage did sound like elephants.
Accordingly, the stage was designed to include elements reminiscent of a circus tent: the primary colours red, yellow and blue, ropes with pennants attached to tent poles, and big arches suggesting openings from which elephants or tigers might enter the stage. The fool was a clown, Oswald walked on stilts; Kent disguised himself as Pagliacci, and Lear was dressed like a ringmaster. His daughters showed off their legs in fishnet stockings under a tight bodice—which later also came to suggest the costume of a cruel dominatrix in the case of the two eldest daughters. This was obviously not a rich circus: Lear’s red coat, in particular, looked as if it had seen better days, with its (carefully crafted) threadbare patches on the back. Repeatedly, the tragic action was interrupted by a troupe of actors, dressed in circus costumes, dancing round the stage to circus music, inviting the audience to clap along, suggesting the way in which the world keeps on turning, even celebrating, while the most awful tragedies are taking place in its midst. The unfeeling routine of the circus, where the show must always go on, seemed to be the production’s equivalent for the epicurean gods of Shakespeare’s text, who, in Gloucester’s opinion, “kill us for their sport”. In this production, however, these bitter, almost blasphemous words had been cut, like all references to the gods and the supernatural: suffering was a wholly secular matter.
The production featured a few innovative solutions to problems of staging. One was the presence of a younger version of Cordelia, dressed exactly like her older self and with the same fair hair (Goneril had greying hair, Regan’s was partly dyed red), who appeared from time to time as a ghost of her alter ego; for instance, sitting on a handcart loaded with luggage when Cordelia had been banished; and silently sitting down opposite Lear when he was having a frugal dinner in a rather free interpretation of 1.4. It was as if the function of this doubling was to suggest that Lear was reminiscing about his daughter as she was when still young and sweet, before she turned into her ungrateful older self (as he thinks). Later it appeared that there was also a practical reason for this device, when Lear carried his daughter’s body onstage: this was the younger Cordelia, as presumably the older actress would have been too heavy for him to lift.
Another remarkable rendering was that of the test scene. There, the country was represented by a huge wedding cake, already cut into four equal slices. Goneril and Regan each flatter their way into one quarter of the cake, and the expectation is then that Cordelia, promised “a third more opulent than [her] sisters,” will be awarded fully half the kingdom; but as she fails the test, her part can easily be divided amongst her sisters. Cordelia’s cold words here were mitigated by the fact that, after her “nothing”, she went up to Lear and kissed him on the cheek. Lear himself, though by turns plaintive and irascible, turned out to be a fairly wise man, in that he did sometimes listen to advice, and began to see the error of his ways fairly soon, when the fool joked with him and he remarked: “I did not make the right choices, did I?”
A final remarkable interpolation was the on-stage presence of the corpse of Lear’s wife, at the beginning of the performance; apparently, she had been accidentally killed by one of the axes intended to impale her, in a variant on a knife-throwing act, and Lear and his daughters were taking their leave from her. This, however, was not clear to many in the audience, like myself, who were sitting in the wrong angle from the stage to see what was going on, so until I read this explanation in newspaper reviews, the opening scene was a total mystery to me.
Shakespeare’s play itself, too, is mysterious, discontinuous, or possibly downright sloppy in some respects. There are characters like the fool who simply disappear, without any good reason. This production attempted to resolve such issues, with partial success. One textual crux that has exercised the critics’ ingenuities is Lear’s complaint, in his last speech: “And my poor fool is hanged”. Does that refer to Cordelia, or to Lear’s fool who has simply disappeared from the play? In the Diever production, it was both, and the line was amended to read, “my poor fool and my daughter were hanged”. The hanging of the fool had been shown in an interpolated scene. With the help of a pulley, the fool, played by a dwarf, was actually hanged—upside down, as befits a fool—by some soldiers, but the reason why they did so was left unclear.
The King of France, too, disappears from Shakespeare’s script after the first Act; the invading French troops are led by Cordelia, which was bad enough from the perspective of English nationalist sensibilities of the period. In the Diever production, however, the French king reappeared alongside his wife, and was given the lines of the Gentleman in 4.7 to speak. However, he was not heard of after this, when Cordelia and her father were captured by enemy troops, so that one puzzling disappearance was resolved, but another introduced.
In spite of the above, the text seemed to follow Shakespeare fairly faithfully, not so much in not cutting, but in adding fairly little to the dialogue. Jack Nieborg, whose translation was used for the production, usually does insert allusions to present-day debates in the country; and certainly King Lear would have lent itself to remarks about the crisis in care for the elderly, the debate on euthanasia, or even Brexit; yet Nieborg withstood most temptations to bring the play up to date. Regan did speak in the inflated jargon, rife with euphemisms, of a modern-day manager, but without touching on specific topical issues. The play planned for next year is Measure for Measure; in that play, alluding to contemporary affairs in the years of Trump and #MeToo could well prove too tempting for Nieborg.