Review of Murray McGibbon’s King Lear in Original Pronunciation
by Terri Bourus
When I took my seat in the Wells-Metz theater in Bloomington for Murray McGibbon’s staging of King Lear, the first thing I noticed in the theatre-in-the-round set, was a stack of old tires, placed so that they were just at my feet, in the seat I chose. I knew by the tires, the dark, worn-looking tiles on the floor, and the overall back-alley feel of the set, that this production might be something I had seen before. The set (and costumes, as I would soon discover), were conspicuously goth, dystopian and futuristic. But, even before the play began, a disembodied voice signaled to us that the language would be something very different from other Lears, making the play simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.
Once the audience was seated, a loud-speaker came on in fits-and-starts until, finally, the unmistakable (to me) voice of Professor David Crystal, the linguist who has spent his career recovering the cadences, rhythms and pronunciations of early modern English (specifically that of Shakespeare’s stage), came out of the loudspeakers. And that voice was accented with… Irish? Welsh? Ah. This is Shakespeare’s own English. But Crystal was not reciting lines: instead he was asking the audience to turn off their cell-phones and instructing them to check out the nearest exits in case of an emergency. The audience members at first looked puzzled, but then they “got it” and began to laugh, or look down, or to each other, and then, as I watched them, they began to listen… intently! And this listening on the part of the audience, and on my own part, never let up through the entire play. It was never “work”, and it didn’t feel like work—in fact, it made the entire Lear experience more meaningful because, for the first time since 1606 (as the program advertised), we were listening to the play in Shakespeare’s English.
This Original Pronunciation, or ‘OP’ experiment forced every actor to pay attention to every consonant and every vowel in the pronunciation of every word they spoke. As a result, there was a precision in the speaking that made the words real. Nobody on stage could ‘generalize’, or speak what they imagined to be a generic ‘Shakespearian’ accent or tone.
David Crystal was a consultant on this production, directed by the award-winning and much-loved veteran of IU Bloomington theatre, Murray McGibbon. With the support of an IU New Frontiers’ grant, McGibbon sought out, and then brought on board, the talents of Crystal, because McGibbon was, from the start, determined to use the stage as a language laboratory for his vision of a not far from reality and a not far from Ireland, King Lear.
One might have expected the dystopian setting and the Original Pronunciation of the language to cancel each other out, but far from it. The juxtaposition of the long-since past language and the by-now familiar Mad-Max distant future created a kind of apocalyptic tension that built as the play moved steadily and quickly towards its dénouement. By the last scene, when Lear, brilliantly played by South African actor Graham Hopkins, hovered over the dead Cordelia before he himself dies, the language had become symphony-like, with its allegros, crescendos, and finally, its adagio. OP became, for this play, the rhythm of a symphony. No one stopped listening.
Or watching. With the exception of Lear, the talented actors who peopled this production were students, and McGibbon had prepared and directed them to perfection. Goneril, who wore a fabulous goth dress and heeled boots, was played by Abby Lee, with just the right amount of narcissistic cruelty and selfishness. Her wicked, and wickedly beautiful older sister portrayal could easily rival Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent. The two half-brothers, Edgar and Edmund, were powerfully played by Ross Rebennack and Mauricio Miranda. Not a small feat, since the roles, challenging enough on their own, were onstage with the veteran actor, Graham Hopkins. This would be intimidating for any acting student, but even more so here given the nature of McGibbon’s experiment.
Far too often, King Lear can be off-putting to young audiences because of the nature of the story of old age, treachery and tragedy, a dysfunctional family in the extreme, and of course, death and the nature of loss. But since most members of the audience were students, I could watch them react to this play. I could see how engrossed they were in the language and in the story. I could see that no one left at intermission, I could see that McGibbon and his cast and crew had captured the imaginations of everyone there. The language and the directing and acting choices created a Lear that lived for them and made them think. The final speech, ‘We that are young’, had more meaning in this production than it has had in any other interpretation of the play I have seen, live or filmed.
It was McGibbon’s intent to make the play a “powerful theatrical experience” and he succeeded. This seamless production was well worth seeing—and hearing.