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Word by Sam Carrigan
Image by Alex Kinstle
The University of Virginia’s top student drama club, Shakespeare on the Lawn, recently put on a performance of King Lear which I cannot possibly pretend to review objectively. I’ve been acquainted with almost half of the cast and crew, but given that the show concluded the weekend of March 28th, the chance to put out a PR fluff piece has come and gone. I’m biased and I thought that the show was excellent. Those cards are on the table. I mean to go farther and explain to you why this show was world-historically good. It was masterfully executed so as to make a classic text relevant to contemporary life, struggles, and politics. Simply put, this production of Lear was the right show at the right time.
In Charlie Kaufman’s staggering 2008 drama “Synecdoche, New York,” much ado is made of the choice made by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, a genius playwright, to cast young actors in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. As it was explained in the film, the audience sees a young man playing Willie Loman, the titular working stiff, portraying a weary old man who feels left behind by the changing world. The actor convincingly depicts someone in this situation, but the audience knows that this flesh-and-blood person has not yet felt the pains that come with old age - it’s down the road, and it’s as inescapable for our young actor as it is for the doomed Loman. The audience does not just feel for the tragedy of the character, but for that of the young actor himself. Kaufman and Hoffman worked closely on the idea behind this postmodern leviathan, and it must have come up that Hoffman played Loman himself in his high school production of Salesman (which was probably the greatest high school production of all time). The disjunction between what one is and the act of pretending, playing at a certain type of person or position in life, can present any number of illuminating contradictions to the thoughtful audience. A story fixed in time and seemingly frozen on the page can take on a staggering depth and seem devastatingly urgent when acted out in the right hands.
A college production of Shakespeare may not have much choice in the age range of its actors, but it does have its choice of plays. Why choose something about old age and renunciation, arguably the least sexy forms of violence? The director Nora Zahn explains in her note to the audience that she was personally affected after seeing a production of the show. The manipulation of the helpless old man at the hands of his children evoked her family’s recent struggles with a grandparent whose dementia was causing heartache and guilt. Among so many other things, Zahn urges the audience to consider “the nature of family and violence and love and royalty and the distribution of wealth, if you’d like.” This isn’t verbiage - her production was calculated so as to bring attention to the many ways that power courses and cuts its way through human relations.
A minor example: the costumes of the production were appropriately modern: men in argyle sweaters, women in sensible dresses, knaves in trendy boots, fools in prismatic leggings. This alone did a good job highlighting the absurdity of something such as a King’s court. When you strip all the participants of their royal garb and show three men in jackets trembling before one man in a jacket, the facade of divine right is rotated just enough to show its inner hollowness. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote plays to draw his audience’s critical attention to the reality beyond the play; this production achieves the same effect with a grace that only enhances the Bard’s work.
The casting was matched in brilliance only by the acting. The role of legitimate heir Edgar was given to a woman, while the bastard Edmund stayed a classical bastard. The psychosexual drama is enhanced when you learn that King Lear and his favored daughter Cordelia - both strong and decisive actors on their own merits - have been dating for years. Perhaps most significantly, the production of this show about the disinherited and dispossessed was prepared and performed by a cadre of youth who are being crushed under a world-record breaking mountain of student debt. These are the youth who were old enough before the crash of 2008 to have heard the old fairy tale, “stay in school, study hard, play by the rules, and you’ll have it made.” That delightful carrot is no longer hanging in front of their eyes, but they have all heard (or felt) what horrors can be wrought by the stick of debt-bondage. One member of the cast was arrested during the brutal crack-down against the Occupy movement in late 2011. Essentially, the actors played one of two tragic archetypes: the youth who had been betrayed and assaulted and robbed of what was promised to them, or the elders who were blind to reality and lost their entire kingdoms. Which is more tragic to see depicted by millennials: the one that they live, or the one that they can never be?
King Lear has been known, aside from its reputation as a great work, to resonate throughout the ages. Tolstoy hated the play. George Orwell thinks that Tolstoy found a story of a misguided patriarch who loses more than he bargained for due in part to the betrayal of his children hit a little too close to home (aha! don’t fault me for bias unless you’re also ready to take on Tolstoy). Sometimes the ubiquity of Shakespeare keeps one from appreciating the fact that this 400-year old text touches on such a universal theme that it inflames the passions across generations, class divides, and oceans. As wonderful as film can be, it still cannot capture the immediacy of being in the same room as an actress channeling an ancient tragedy while simultaneously living through a tragedy of their own.
The stage, especially when hosting the inevitably farther and farther past stories of Shakespeare, has a reputation for being a stuffy, static, inaccessible anachronism. Nothing could be farther from what is possible when an insightful and spirited band of madmen, madwomen, and madpeople connects the universal of the text with the specific of their lives and the lives of their audience.
#Real #Review #Shakespeare #Drama #Theater
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