The tragedy of King Lear never takes hold because you know that no matter how bad it gets someone is going to pick up an accordion and with a ‘Hey, Nonny Nonny’ dance those blues away.
King Lear by William Shakespeare. Directed by Bill Buckhurst. A staging by Shakespeare’s Globe, presented by Arts/Emerson at the Paramount Theater, Boston, MA, through October 23.
By Bill Marx
Can you produce a King Lear that is too dark? That was the question raised by the recent fascinating though misguided staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy at Britian’s National Theatre, a well-acted version directed by Sam Mendes that starred Simon Russell Beale as a monarch who was obviously out of his freaking gourd from the first scene on, eventually strangling the Fool (and then forgetting about it?) while Kent looked on with stony indifference. This was pitilessness with a self-indulgent vengeance: though Mendes’s decision to water board Gloucester was a touch of sardonic genius. For me, the jury is still out on how nihilistic Lear can be: nasty as it was, at least Beale’s approach gave you something to think about—a homicidal Lear and the idea of mental illness in the Elizabethan period were only the beginning. In truth, Peter Brook’s Beckett-laden treatment was as bleak—who can forget the great Irene Worth as Goneril in the 1971 film version ending it all by dashing her head against a rock?
Given Gloucester’s visceral groan that “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport,” I am willing to tolerate a lot of existential despair in a production of King Lear. But the answer to the opposite question—can you be too lighthearted with Lear?—is a slam dunk. You can, and this production from Shakespeare’s Globe shows you just what happens. A powerful tragedy morphs into a domestic melodrama interlaced with (strained) comic interludes. Gloucester’s just complaint against the gods, Lear’s volcanic anger, his horrible curses on his daughters, the zero to the bone crash-landing are undercut because you know that soon someone is going to pick up an accordion and with a ‘Hey, Nonny Nonny’ dance those blues away.
The whip lashes of humor in Lear (the acidic wit of the Fool, etc.) are there to accent the gathering darkness, not provide a feel-good breather. Pare down Lear‘s vision of our existence careening out of kilter and what you end up with is … entertainment. The latter is the new trend in Bard-ic stagings. Shakespeare is thought to be heavy lifting, so audiences are delighted that, with the proper theatrical informality, an it-is-all-in-fun approach on the part of the performers, they actually enjoy the experience of sitting through Shakespeare—hey, that tragedy wasn’t so bad, was it?
In his first scene, Joseph Marcell’s Lear strikes a note of mild discomfort rather than anger. He keeps touching his chest as if he wanted to make sure we knew that his gorge was rising. The suggestion appears to be (reinforced by how tightly Marcell gloms onto Bethan Culinane’s Cordelia in the final scenes) that if somebody would show this Lear some extra special attention he would calm down—if only Mrs. Lear was around to give him a hug. Marcell’s wobbly amiability, his wind-up toy fussiness, only comes into its own in the mad scenes (post-storm), where his genial daffiness fits quite nicely. The other seven members of the cast move with spry efficiency through director Bill Buckhurst’s self-consciously pedestrian staging—the actors are often planted at center stage and orate. (No memorable theatrical images allowed.)
The cast members’ delivery of the verse is clear, but in the new, straightforward way that is supposed to ensure that everyone in the audience can follow the sense of the verse: Important words are pitched higher so that nobody will misunderstand. There are few attempts to play creatively with the lines and their rhythms to enrich the dramatic action. The actors are proficient enough but interchangeable—you could easily swap Shanaya Rafatt and Gwendolen Chatfield for the conniving sisters, while Daniel Pirrie’s Edmund and Alex Mugnaioni’s Edgar are bland peas in a pod, not combustible yin and yang. John Stahl’s Gloucester is sorely inconvenienced rather than shattered. The inevitable doubling of roles is treated with the predictable wisecracks. In fact, there are a lot of easy chuckles here—one of Gloucester’s eyeballs is tossed to the ceiling. I have never heard the hovel scene with Lear and his frazzled crew generate so much chuckling. Apparently, a vision of “unaccommodated man” is a laughing matter.
After the final scene, Marcell’s Lear and Cullinane’s Cordelia rise up and hold each other’s hands, as if they are reunited in heaven or somewhere. Nathum Tate, who in the 18th century bowdlerized the text of King Lear (he even provided an all’s well ending), would have loved it. Theatergoers of the period were challenged by Shakespeare’s tragedy because it was too powerful, too emotionally disturbing. The great critic Samuel Johnson was so shocked by the climax of King Lear he preferred the doctored finale. Of course, you don’t have to censor Shakespeare to get the same results. Just add music and japes, tamp down on the desolation and furies and get those happy feet dancing, and audiences will leave the theater with a smile. Tragedy averted—Hey, Nonny Nonny … Nonny, Nonny … Oy.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.