Queen Lear by Tom Lanoye (Toneelgroep Amsterdam) @ Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, the Netherlands, 2015Adaptation

  • Paul Franssen

Koningin Lear [Queen Lear], written by Tom Lanoye, directed by Eric de Vroedt, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, the Netherlands, 25 March 2015.

Review by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)

Queen Lear

Tom Lanoye is known for his radical Shakespeare adaptations, such as Hamlet versus Hamlet, whose female protagonist confronted the First World War, and Ten Oorlog [To War], his three-part marathon version of the history plays. Compared to these, Queen Lear is relatively peaceful; yet it, too, brings Shakespeare’s tragedy into the modern world. Most obviously, this involved replacing Shakespeare’s male ruler by a powerful woman, and, to preserve the oedipal aspect, his daughters by sons. Besides, Betty Lear is not really a queen, but the CEO of a modern multinational conglomerate, Lear Inc., just before an international economic collapse reminiscent of the 2008 banking crisis. The main setting is the boardroom on the top floor of a sky scraper, from which desperate businessmen jump to their deaths; the heath is an urban jungle in the middle of a storm, with the Underground closed down, and no shelter apart from a cardboard box, which Betty Lear has to share with a junky.

Lear Inc., a conglomerate with branches including oil, real estate and tourism, was created by Betty’s late husband. Now it is governed by a board consisting of Betty herself, her three sons and their spouses, and Kent, a loyal retainer of the company, who partly corresponds to the original’s Gloucester. Betty feels that the burden of her job is becoming too heavy, and wants to divide the shares between her three sons. Her wish is understandable, as she shows signs of dementia: she cannot even find her way round the office anymore, and fails to recognise her own children. But apart from her personal weakness, there is also a systemic failure: ever since the introduction of computers, she ruminates, the world of finance has become so complex that no one really understands it anymore: at board meetings, she always wonders about the solid reality behind the financial figures. Her eldest son, Gregory, admits to a similar insecurity. Even the second son Henry, an intelligent technocrat, is quite lost when the financial crisis erupts. The world of credit swaps and derivates has become so complex that no one can see through it any longer.

This also implies that no one is solely responsible for all the evil that befalls Lear and her world. Unlike Shakespeare’s tragedy, which makes monsters out of the evil daughters and Cornwall, Lanoye presents all points of view with a degree of sympathy. Gregory/Goneril may be a superficial playboy, but his insecurity towards his trophy wife makes him human. His blinding of Kent/Gloucester in a scuffle is almost an accident, the result of an impulsive, bare-handed act of aggression, not deliberate malice. His brother Henry/Regan understandably wishes to protect his vulnerable wife Alma from his overbearing mother. Alma began as an office girl, has married upwards, but now suffers from infertility, as well as some other unspecified disease—perhaps anorexia? All of them have their moments of humanity, but still act cruelly, particularly in the panic of corporate meltdown.

Conversely, the equivalents of Shakespeare’s noble characters are also complicit with the company’s financial problems. Kent has cooked the books, and engaged in shady financial dealings, to shield Betty from the harsh reality. His reasons for this, and for supporting the third son, Cornald/Cordelia, are revealed towards the end of the play: Cornald is, in fact, his illegitimate son, conceived when Betty´s husband was still alive. Cornald has more of a social conscience than his brothers, which emerges in his efforts to set up a micro-financing scheme in the Third World. Yet he is not without sin either, as he tells Kent on Skype that his project has failed because he had bribed the wrong officials. The Skype connection, which is frequently interrupted and always produces a time lag of a split second once again foregrounds the distance from reality created by modern technology.

As if the themes of female leadership and the banking crisis were not enough, the storm scene is also linked to the climate crisis. In her raging against the elements, Betty Lear speaks of the monstrous buildings in cities, the way modern corporate man (and woman) has become estranged from nature. Although the director’s original plan seems to have been to focus on the environmental theme, the financial crisis was more prominent in the actual production. Not surprisingly, in this technological world the gods and ruminations about the metaphysical origins of evil are absent. All we see is people caught in the webs they themselves have been complicit in creating.

Transposing Shakespeare’s plot and his language to the modern world like this must have presented a challenge. In some instances, Lanoye succeeds wonderfully. When blind Kent/Gloucester wants to commit suicide, he is supposedly taken to roof of the building. Cornald (now functioning as Edgar) sketches a vertiginous cityscape for him, featuring police helicopters and window cleaners working on the towers, as a clever pastiche of the Dover scene with its description of the samphire gatherers. The play’s denouement, however, is perilously close to slapstick. As actual bloodshed is almost unknown in the modern corporate world, we get a scuffle over a document signed by Betty, in which she gives all her remaining powers to her clever son Henry, who is still hoping to rescue the company. Cornald, however, fears this will only mean a continuation of corrupt business practices, and steals the document. In the ensuing fight, on top of the building, he tumbles over the edge. Betty Lear ultimately dies of a broken heart, after she has taken her son’s body on her lap in a Pieta-like pose, and even tried to give him suck, which she is convinced has restored life to him.

Paul Franssen

Author: Paul Franssen

Paul Franssen (1955) teaches at the English Department of Utrecht University. His main research and teaching interests are Shakespeare and the early modern period, South African Literature, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. He has co-edited a few books on Shakespearean matters, and is the author of Shakespeare’s Literary Lives: The Author as Character in Fiction and Film (Cambridge University Press, 2016). www.cambridge.org/9781107125612