(Chicago) Last night, I saw King Lear at the Goodman Theater. Stacy Keach was the King, and the director was Robert Falls. It was a “strong” production, in the sense that the director’s choices were bold and potentially controversial. For example, the setting (stunningly produced) was somewhere in post-Soviet Russia or Eastern Europe.* Lear, Cornwall, and Edmund were either gangsters or Putin-like dictators. The “knights” were riot police.
I thought all of the director’s choices were defensible, and some were brilliant. For example, it was a good idea to make Cordelia a quietly rebellious teenager who detests her family’s vulgarity. The actress, Laura Odeh, is small and young-looking and wears plain jeans, whereas her sisters are gangster molls. Her rebelliousness plausibly explains why she refuses to make a speech in praise of her father.
Likewise, the setting reminds us how unjust is Lear’s original regime. He recognizes the injustice himself, once he loses his knights:
…. A man may see how this world goes
with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond
justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark, in
thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which
is the justice, which is the thief?
I also liked the violent, urban setting. Regan and Cornwall order Gloucester’s castle “shut up” against Lear. The stage directions tell us that the banished men wander on a “heath”–a natural place. Nature is a major motif in the play, always opposed to artifice. Several characters wrestle with whether nature is just or cruel. But the word “heath” is never spoken on stage, so it is a legitimate idea to make that barren place into nighttime streets, populated by the poor, the naked, and the crazy. When Edgar, Gloucester, and Lear are cast out, they become homeless–just like the homeless men in our cities.
Robert Falls’ bold directorial choices remind me of a general point. Any written text dramatically under-describes what is literally going on. It gives us only partial information about setting, clothing, “blocking,” tone of voice, pacing, facial expressions. Even a staged or filmed production must leave much to the imagination and will be seen differently by different people. But the director and cast fill in some missing details.
We might think that their first task is to figure out what is literally going on, so that we can watch and make up our own minds about general themes. But any intepretation of the literal meaning of the text must be informed by a theory of its general meaning. So, for example, Robert Falls knows from the end of the play that Lear will come to see his own kingdom as deeply unjust, arbitrary, and artificial. Therefore, Falls sets Act 1, Scene 1 in a Russian gangster’s club. If Lear’s regime is brutal, then Kent (his most loyal follower) must be a bit of a thug. That is how Stephen Pickering played him last night.
Likewise, toward the end of the play, Regan suspects a sexual relationship between Oswald and her sister Goneril. (“I know you are of her bosom.” “I, madam?” “I speak in understanding; you are; I know’t.”) Therefore, several scenes earlier, Falls introduces Oswald and Goneril in flagrante delicto. That is an extreme case of using gesture and stage position to illustrate a theme.
That scene underlines the play’s pervasive sexuality, which is often overlooked. Regan and Goneril are sexual rivals for wicked Edmund. Falls also thinks that Lear is sexually jealous of his youngest daughter. In this production, the King is not enraged by her first word — “nothing” — but by her explanation:
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
Overall, Fall’s production could be described as nihilistic. He chooses, for example, to have Goneril suffocate Regan and then kill herself, joining a heap of bodies on stage. And Albany literally rapes his wife Goneril while he curses her:
Thou changed and self-cover’d thing, for shame,
Be-monster not thy feature. Were’t my fitness
To let these hands obey my blood,
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
Thy flesh and bones: howe’er thou art a fiend,
A woman’s shape doth shield thee.
I don’t know if those are good choices, but there is no question that Lear is a bleak play. Since it is set in a pagan world, Shakespeare need not assume divine providence or a morally ordered universe. Post-Soviet Russia seems an ideal metaphor for cosmic disorder and cynicism. “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.”
*Charles Isherwood, the NY Times reviewer, says that the setting is Yugoslavia. That makes sense: a kingdom divided in parts turns to anarchy.