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Some observations on DLR Theatre’s production of ‘King Lear’ on the 4th of October 2017
The importance of the stage setting was crucial to this production. The stage was made up of a tiered throne indicative of the importance of the theme of power and its abuse. Luxurious furs reflected the wealth and prestige of power associated with a monarchy. The opening soundscape was very effective in that it highlighted the bestial imagery that runs throughout the whole play. We heard the sound of snakes, monkeys, pelicans, tigers and the various elements of a storm. These sounds parallel with the play’s bestial imagery associated with the forces of evil in the play.
The character of King Lear entered from the back of the auditorium and this accentuated the air of pomp and ceremony attached to his royal person. There was a silliness to the so called ‘love test’ orchestrated by Lear, but his arrogance was nonetheless stressed. Lear’s imperiousness of character was conveyed as the actor went right into the faces of Goneril and Regan, demanding grandiose declarations of love. The vying nature of the two evil sisters was hinted as Regan stepped up on the throne, reflective of the competitive nature of the sisters as they try to outdo each other in competing for their father’s attention.
It is interesting to note that Lear sat on the throne in expectation of Cordelia’s more ‘opulent’ response. The throne represents power, security and status. However, when Cordelia declares that she has ‘nothing’ to add and further elaborates that she loves her father as a daughter should do so: ‘I love you according to my bond’, Lear moves to Cordelia’s original position on stage perhaps indicative of his vulnerability. This is perhaps the first time in the play wherein Lear’s sense of self-perception is thrown into doubt. He is utterly dismayed: ‘So young and so untender’. He moves back to the throne in order to reassert himself and rashly disowns his ‘best object’.
Again we see the importance of the stage when Lear takes off his crown and shares it with Goneril and Regan. The different levels of the stage symbolically portray the power relationships.
Lear’s rashness was indicated in his vitriolic tone and fast delivery of lines. The knife against Kent’s throat reflected his tempestuous nature.
In the exchange between Lear and Burgundy we see Lear’s disdain of Cordelia. She is now nothing but a paltry possession. His hand gestures conveyed this clearly. All of this serves to alienate Lear further from the audience’s sympathies. When Cordelia steps up on the throne steps, she was effectively asserting her moral superiority over her sisters as she comments on her lack of ‘glib and oily art’. Effectively, the director has put her on a pedestal. However, the portrayal of Cordelia was not one-dimensional as she came across as spirited character, a character whom audience admired. On her pedestal, France proclaims her worth ‘she is herself a dowry’. Lear resumes his sitting position once again, emphasising his implacable nature. He cannot be moved and callously dismisses poor Cordelia.
The morally upright Cordelia warns her sisters: ‘I know what you are’. Once Cordelia is gone, Goneril and Regan assume the throne and here we see them combine forces against their father. They lovingly embrace as they declare their intention ‘let us hit together’.
This production used lighting effectively to insinuate certain things about characters, highlight themes and accentuate key motifs. For example, the use of red lighting on the character of Edmund accentuated the menacing and sinister element of his character. Again the different levels of the throne prop were used to convey the power struggle as ‘Edmund the base shall top the legitimate’. Another interpretation of this could be that it highlights his intellectual superiority over his gullible father.
Yellow lighting was used in the exchange between Gloucester and Edmund perhaps symbolic of Edmund’s jealousy and cowardice to confront his father in an open and honest manner.
Gloucester’s monologue that ensues highlights the anarchy that results in familial betrayal: ‘ruinous disorder’ and ‘we have seen the best of our times’ –foreboding.
Edmund’s preference for the upper level of throne steps might also symbolise that he has the upper hand over the legitimate Edgar. The sheer verbosity of Edmund’s exchange with Edgar and the fast pace delivery served to demonstrate how good of a manipulator Edmund really is.
The soliloquy ‘a credulous father and a brother noble whose nature is so far from doing harm, expects none’ was effectively bathed in red light, thereby accentuating the menacing and sinister aspects of Edmund’s character.
Goneril’s raised voice in her own castle served to show us a new side to this character. She is quite comfortable in her new role of authority and urges her servants ‘to put on what weary negligence you please’. Oswald describes Lear as ‘my lady’s father’. It is interesting to note the comedic aspect that the director chose to highlight. The erosion of Lear’s status is through a process of laughter, mockery and derision. The resounding laughter on stage served to chip away at Lear’s sense of self.
Like Lear, the Fool entered from the back of the auditorium and we should ask ourselves what this might signify? What analogies can be drawn from Lear’s and the Fool’s predicaments? The Fool makes use of the throne frame as he/she climbed the frame symbolising that perhaps he/she knows more than he/she let on.
When the Fool stands above Lear, whispering into his ear, calling him a fool, it is hard not to perceive the Fool’s role as Lear’s conscience. The Fool tells Lear that he was a ‘fool’ for giving away his ‘golden one’ and bursts into song. The Fool is safe from retribution because surly you cannot take this person seriously and yet there is an element of truth in what the Fool says. The Fool says ‘I would not be thee’ because he is nothing. He has no status. He lacks self-awareness. The Fool piques Lear’s conscience and so Lear embarks on a long painful journey towards moral growth.
The Fool sits on the seat of power when Goneril castigates Lear for his licentious behaviour. We see the erosion of the ‘dragon’ myth as Lear questions ‘Are you our daughter?’ and exclaims ‘Who is it who can tell me who I am?’ Lear’s identity crisis is further indicated as he insolently burbs in the face of Goneril as he loath to accept her designation of him as ‘old and reverent’. He repudiates her visibly shaking ‘destested kite, thou liest’. Lear is clearly unable to accept the truth of the situation. When invoking the gods, Lear seems almost one with nature. He invokes the gods in his imprecation of Goneril. He spits at her and pulls at her clothes until he realises that it is Goneril who has the power and he is ashamed when he realises his mistake (anagnorisis): ‘I am ashamed thou hast power to shake my manhood thus’.
Once again, the power struggle ensues as Lear unconvincingly declares that he will ‘assume the shape thou thinks I have cast off forever’.
Our first impression of Albany is true to the text of the play. He is a weak, ineffectual character and stands aloof from the other members of his household. Oswald the servant seems to be afforded more status by Goneril than Albany. We see a moment of clarity and epiphany for Lear following Goneril’s verbal onslaught as he sits on the lower step, symbolic of his disintegrating status and realises that ‘I did her wrong’.
The use of blue was used effectively in the play to illustrate moments of clarity. Traditionally, blue light is used in film to indicate moments of insight, coldness, isolation and melancholy. The Fool is bathed in blue light as he announced to Lear ‘thou shouldn’t be old before thy was wise’. Blue light was used to accentuate the moment of crisis as Lear vehemently states ‘Let me not be mad, not mad sweet heavens’ (symbolic of Lear’s sense of alienation and confusion).
Red light covered the throne when Edmund warned his gullible brother to leave- again emphasising the abuse of power and the corruption of power relations.
Yellow light was used in the exchange between Gloucester and Edgar- indicative perhaps of Glouceter’s stupidity. Traditionally when yellow light is used it symbolises madness, jealousy, insecurity, obsession, sickness and naivety and it is worth asking ourselves how many of these tropes apply to Edmund and his father.
Like so many of the characters in this play who are vying for the power positions, Cornwall assumes the upper level of the throne set.
Animal imagery is used to reduce a person’s status. Oswald uses bestial imagery to denigrate Kent.
The comedy aspect of the fight between Kent and Oswald emphasised the total disrespect for those in authority, thereby emphasising the corruption of power. The comedic/laughter aspect was used to accentuate the power struggle and the erosion of someone’s status. A process of derision and ridicule.
Blue light was used when Kent is placed in the stocks when it is revealed that Cordelia is on her way, signifying a moment of clarity and hope as she will ‘give loses their remedies’.
Edgar’s declaration to take ‘the basest shape’ is clothed in a misty fog. In a world of anarchy and chaos, the only way to survive is through pretence. Significance of the soundscape is important here- animal world-Hobbesian view of the world- life is nasty, brutish and short!
The Fool hangs from the timber frames of the throne once again assuming the moral supremacy over Lear as he declared how ‘she hath abated half my train’. Lear struggles to accept this change in status. He is utterly appalled by Goneril’s maltreatment of him- he employs bestial imagery to do so.
We see the use of pathetic fallacy as Lear looks to the heavens. He is utterly affronted by Kent’s stocking. He declares to Goneril ‘thou art a boil’-the introduction of the imagery of sickness and disease is further significant in terms of the moral entropy. Both Goneril and Regan attack Lear from the upper level- a process of beating him down, making him into a fragile and vulnerable character. He takes his outrage to the gods and declares that Goneril and Regan are the ‘most unnatural hags’. The growing intensity of the storm parallels with the intensifying tempest within Lear’s mind. The soundscape worked very well to convey this disintegration of reason- passio hysteria- blue light used to convey a moment of truth- Lear, we realise has been deluding himself all along.
The king is in high rage- ‘the rough wind do sorely ruffle’. This storm serves to teach Lear a lesson ‘to wilful men, the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters.’
An element of interpretative dance was used during the storm scene to convey the intensity and confusion. The soundscape included the sounds of wolves, hyenas and kites- all of which are associated with the forces of evil in the play. During the storm scene, Lear is brought to his knees, and sees himself for what he really is ‘a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man’- bathed in blue light.
Suffering is not proportional. Lear grows in self-awareness. We see his moral growth in his concern for the Fool- ‘I have one part of my heart that’s sorry yet for thee’. The set is immersed in darkness- the darkness of the set is perhaps symbolic of the moral blindness. The storm rages and the soundscape convey to the audience that the forces of evil are prevailing and triumphant.
The blue lighting is used to show Lear’s growing social conscience as he acquires an awareness of his own shortcomings and failings –‘Oh I have ta’en too little care of this’.
However, this process of moral growth is somewhat imperfect as Lear thinks that the beggar is a mirror image of himself ‘did thou gavest all to thy daughters?’- traces of egocentrism still adumbrated here. This imperfect progression in Lear’s moral edification adds to its credibility.
Poor Tom represents the most vulnerable in society. He serves as a stark contrast with the corrupt and more affluent characters in the play. His presence on stage serves as a social commentary on the social ramifications of a despot’s reign. He is the ‘unaccommodated man’ who Lear says is ‘no more but such a poor bare, forked animal’.
Further evidence of Lear’s moral growth is his refusal to abandon Poor Tom ‘I will keep still with my philosopher’. His refusal to leave Poor Tom is indicative of his newly acquired capacity to empathise. However, the flawed nature of his journey towards moral growth is further evinced in the Mock trial of Goneril and Regan. Lear in his madness tries to arraign Goneril and Regan in an effort to regain his authority and status perhaps. Such is the intensity of his hatred, he longs to pull them both to pieces. He desires to anatomise Regan’s heart in an effort to understand the innate evil within them ‘Is there any cause in nature that causes these hard hearts?’
The melodramatic music reaches a crescendo just before the interval.
After the interval we are reintroduce to the character of Cornwall, bathed in red light. He gives out the sinister order to seek out Gloucester for execution. An element of lasciviousness is brought into the play with Regan’s teasing of Kent. This has the effect of humiliating and emasculating the king’s old loyal friend.
The metaphorical moral blindness of Gloucester becomes a physical reality when his eyes are ruthlessly gorged out. This was a rather macabre image on stage and the audience reacted with revulsion.
When we see Albany reappear on this, we see he has grown a backbone. He vociferously tells Goneril ‘you are not worth the rude wind that blows in your face’. Like Lear, Albany wants to tear Goneril to pieces. Cordelia appears on stage, her change in status that has resulted from her marriage to France is evident. She appears richly attired and stands on the steps up to the throne, declaring that her motives for declaring war are predicated on ‘love, dear love and aged father’s right’.
The throne set doubled as the cliffs of Dover where the suicidal Gloucester plans to take his own life. What is the significance of this? Crown and cliff- perhaps both can be perceived as symbols of security and self-possession. Like Lear, Gloucester is willing to give it all away.
Despite the silly crown of leaves that Lear was wearing, he seems to have some growing awareness of the situation ‘They told me I was everything tis a lie’.
Blue light enveloped Cordelia, underscoring her calm celestial nature. She represents the forces of calm; of goodness; and of restoration. Lear is swathed in a blinding white light when he is returned to Cordelia- symbolic of a hospital setting. The doctor talks of Lear’s ‘untuned and jarring senses’. A beam of white light blinds the waking Lear, emphasising his suffering. He speaks of the wheel of suffering ‘I am bound upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears do scald like molten lead’. Twice Lear begs not to be mocked. He cannot endure furthermore derision, humiliation and mockery –‘Pray do not mock me. I am foolish fond old man’.
The effectiveness of the blue light is underscored further when Regan seeks confirmation on the nature of the relationship between Goneril and himself. Edmund is likewise enveloped in blue light when he reveals to the audience that he does not love either of the sisters.
The final scene wherein Lear enters, carrying the dead body of Cordelia lacked poignancy and power because of the actor’s voice projection and other competing elements. This is the most poignant moment in the play and it should be charged with the emotional ferocity that the play demands. One imagines that it is probably one of the most difficult moments in Shakespearian drama to enact, down to pacing and timing.