I stumbled when I saw
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players …
Dear friends and readers,
Don’t miss it. If the ensemble production of the London Globe King Lear comes anywhere near you, get there. The Folger theater in DC was their first stop round the US.
This London Globe production, like that of the earlier Hamlet (in July) can function as a revelation. The three times I’ve seen Lear before (once a PBS film, another time at the Central Park Delacorte theater in summer, a third time in London), there’s been a famous actor delivering himself virtuoso style as Lear. Nothing against that and Marcell lacks nothing against the others I remember. He seemed to be an elderly black man with white grizzled beard and thin hair. Perfect for the part. What makes this production is this Lear is part of a larger world where other figures have countervailing weight (Bill Nash as the Earl of Kent, Bethan Cullinane as Cordelia and Fool); the taking on of more than one role for many of the actors brings out stinging parallels (Daniel Pirrie as Edmund and the treacherous supposed loyal servant Oswald). Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar and Tom the homeless man was particularly strong.
The Globe production of Hamlet revealed its predilection for giving its characters some fun; Shakespeare’s text allowed for much comic deliverance. With the Lear text, the Globe production was at a loss for self-reflexive amusement so they plunged into, and insisted upon the ritual aspect of life, the hypocrisies. The framing of having the actors come out in 1940s style dress and present themselves implicitly as actors going round England in WW2 to keep up morale was the same, but they kept up the suitcases and mime bits in the Hamlet far more than Lear; basically the frame was active in Lear only as the play started, and to make the intermission. It did not return at the end of Lear, for then they were doing toned-down wild Elizabethan dancing (toned down as befitting the play’s ending). The opening scene of Lear is stiff, parable or fable like (as in the opening of Pericles) while Hamlet is realistic — or more so. So here the conceit of actors playing players playing Shakespeare’s characters is used to tone down some of the cruelty. We see the same faces and bodies doing different roles so we know we are in a play. Otherwise, in this play barbarity is us. Both productions were directed by Bill Buckhurst.
To me this time round (this is probably the fourth time I’ve seen the play), the whole of the fourth and fifth acts, especially Lear’s near last lines hit me with their direct truth fiercely:
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
It took enormous reserves of strength not to howl with him. Had I done so I would have ruined the play for others around me, so I contained myself with mere writhing and silent crying. I did feel the ripping out of Gloucester’s eyes produced a different gasp in the audience than I have heard before and it’s since the ISIS/ISIL state beheaded by knife two American journalists on YouTube video place on the Internet so the play has become more generally relevant to its audiences too.
Taken as a dramatized poem (which I can do as a watcher), I was most moved in the fourth act when Lear is brought down to the level of a second homeless old man suffering from “food insecurity” (that’s the latest euphemism on US TV media), seeing other beggars, the hard lot of workers gathering seaweed on a cliff. Lear’s insight into how the generality of people lived whether it be BC or Renaissance or today makes him ask himself why did he not see this before? the wracking pain of loss has made him realize how blind he was when prosperous, unfeeling. I look back to see my life with Jim over the past ten years feelingly:
Might I but live to see thee in my touch,
I’d say I had eyes again!
I thought about how I had been too complacent, mistakes I’d made, things I wish I had done otherwise. Since then I’ve told Charlie (my grief support person-friend at the Haven) how I felt when I saw the play. She urged me not to make causes of grief that were not there before. If I’m doing things now I wish I had done then, do not retrofit. He was satisfied with his life; he liked it.
The quiet of the audience filing out at the end of the play despite the use of exhilarating dance at the close suggests many were affected.
I can’t resist identifying an actress from Downton Abbey: Gwendolen Chatfield, Gwen in DA, the housemaid who left to take a job as a typist-secretary, was in this production Goneril. She plays the accordion:
It was Izzy who first spotted her — though Izzy does not watch Downton Abbey.
It was a Sunday later afternoon and we went out to get two yummy pasta meals from Noodles and Company to take home with us. I washed it down with wine and told myself I would try to go to more of the Folger’s poetry readings, lectures, and play productions too than I have hitherto done.
In talking of Lear, we talked of older literature, Charlie and I. She brought up an image of me as having a package or burden I carry and take to her every other week now, and we go over what’s inside. I mentioned that was like Bunyan’s Pilgrim who falls into a Slough of Despond. I quoted Shakespeare’s speech about men and women being merely players on a stage, and she then said that the act Jim and I were in is now over, I am in the next act, and he’s left the stage.
Tonight I found in Alexander Pope’s poetry where he has a poignant passage about leaving the stage (in his Imitations of Horace) and asserts his actor has “play’d, and lov’d, and eat, and drank your fill,” and my beloved didn’t get to do that, but in another of the Horatian poems there’s this: “The Cordial Drop of Life is Love alone.” “A wheel of fire” Lear calls his life and that is what I am on still too.