Speak What we Feel Not What We Ought to Say: KING LEAR

Produced by ArtsEmerson
Created by Shakespeare’s Globe
Directed by Bill Buckhurst

October 15-23, 2014
Paramount Center
559 Washington St.
Boston, MA 02111
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Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Boston, MA)

Yesterday was my father’s birthday. I don’t bring this up in order to achieve the fifteen minutes of internet fame that it will garner him (hi, Dad!), but rather to insist that the themes of King Lear are persistent to fathers and daughters to this day. I mean, there’s really nothing like having an angry Dragon bellow at you for three hours about filial duty to remind you to at least call your father on his birthday.

Shakespeare’s Globe, while on tour, attempts to bring a little piece of London with them. This is no small feat in a space like the Paramount, a 500-seat proscenium house with all of its nineteenth century charms. The Globe’s provided bare-wood set and actor-driven acting is a style typical of their house and is compounded by the efforts of Paramount’s house management. This is to say that the entire three-hour Lear trip will be taken with houselights on and all of the benefits and discomfort that this choice will bring with it. I was keenly aware, for instance, of the impromptu restroom adventure that the individual seated two rows in front of me took during Act 1, so plan accordingly.

The performances, for the most part, are strong. This production functions on the back of eight actors doubling roles (besides the to-be-expected Fool/Cordelia doubling). That trope showed remarkable strength in the performers and allowed them to flex their ranges as they went (especially Alex Mugnaioni in his roles of Edgar/Duke of Cornwall/Duke of Burgundy, and Daniel Pirrie as Edmund/Oswald/King of France). The Gloucester family, on the whole, was particularly strong, lending a sort of lopsidedness to the production; their story was much more engaging than the main event of Lear and his daughters.

The show is costumed with the vague notion of a WW1-style traveling troupe of players. Each actor wears a period-appropriate under-layer, over which they add robes, crowns, hats, and other accessories in order to embody the doubled roles they play. This tactic worked, for the most part, and really lent a “back in time” vibe to the evening at large.

Unfortunately, it also created a vague world of the play unable to support the towering normalcy which Lear demolishes in the first scene. Since we, as an audience, were not altogether clear about what this world was and what was normal in it, the unusual behaviors of its royal inhabitants were left (for the most part) unregarded. In order to make Lear’s tale work, the audience must have a keen understanding of precisely where the show is coming from. This production took madness as a foregone conclusion, and there were no pillars of order created from which to deviate which meant that, when chaos ensued, we as an audience were left confused and astounded.

The production didn’t shy away from humor and, in fact, perhaps dwelled in the realm of laughter a bit too much. One unfortunate prop malfunction which I witnessed was the bouncing of Gloucester’s severed eyeball after it had been thrown from the stage with some force. Unfortunately, there’s no recovering from a bouncing eyeball… not even when an actor has just had his eyes put out onstage and is floundering to find some will to live despite his terrible misfortune. Indeed, even the Captain’s doleful Act Five announcement of “Edmund is dead, my Lord” made over the pitiful bodies of the Lear family garnered laughter from every seat in the house.

One thread of brilliance in the production was its inclusion of music to aid in telling the story. The actors doubled as musicians and, through song, flute, drum, horn, and various bellows-driven instruments, wove in and out of the action with their soundscapes. As is traditional with shows performed at the Globe, the final jig was included to give an audience a taste of true Shakespeareana.

If you’ve never seen a Globe production, this is a good chance to have a feel for one without leaving the States and would be worth your trip downtown. Especially if you need to remember to call your father at intermission and wish him a happy birthday.

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