By Christin Pounds, Burlington Writers Workshop
A review of King Lear, performed in FlynnSpace by the Actors from the London Stage on Thursday-Saturday, March 28-30.
I admit, I had very few expectations of what I would see when I sat down to watch King Lear in FlynnSpace on Thursday evening. Five British actors from a traveling Shakespeare troupe presented an interpretation of the tragedy that was modern and minimalistic, while remaining true to the original text and intended story. I am a Shakespeare novice, distantly appreciative of the genius that can pack so much human seerism into rapid-fire dialogue, so I settled in to be informed. I immediately noticed the lack of set design, stage bare, and realized this would not be the richly costumed performance I associate with Shakespearean drama. I was intrigued.
When the actors came onstage wearing muted modern clothing and launched into a pre-script introduction of characters, each actor representing several personas, my spirits lifted in anticipation of a show that was shaking up to be a visually non-representative interpretation. Being uninitiated in the language, it took a few minutes to catch up with the quick dialogue. Just as I heard a line, I often understood it during the next, which caused a deeper level of concentration at first. I eventually relaxed into the broader narrative and was able to get into a better rhythm of listening, refraining from analyzing every word or phrase. I was surprised at the smart humor, still subtly canny centuries later.
With only five actors playing so many roles (some had upwards of six), it was necessary to provide quick recognition tools. When the cast introduced the characters before the play began, they succinctly modeled the visual differences: glasses for Edgar, no glasses for Edmund; green scarf for Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (worn two ways); and my favorite: a black baseball cap embroidered “KING.” for Lear—a fabulous understatement for his opulent excellency. I wondered how I would remember them all, but it proved an effective memory tool by allowing the actors to switch between characters, often in the same scene and sometimes in the same conversation (impressive!), without confusion or difficulty of imagination.
In true Shakespearean tradition, the actors were also each compelled to play roles of both male and female genders, with considerable and sometimes humorous success. Most notably was Tricia Kelly, who played King Lear with a presence of force that belied her diminutive stature. Kelly brought the fullness of Lear’s irascible personality to every scene, committing to his mental decline and madness with such focused passion that I was sometimes startled into temporary belief. From her very first line I was satisfied that Kelly would represent the querulous king authentically.
What amounted to two and a half hours of ceaseless dialogue packed with worldly wisdom, innuendo, and lively jest is, I imagine, a feat of memorization for these actors. There were no obvious missteps and I left the show with respect for the time and professionalism it must have taken to pull it off. This performance by the Actors from the London Stage was completely interpreted and directed by the actors themselves, focusing five points of view in one direction. It is obvious that this piece required a wonderful collaboration to pull off the roundness of story in a minimalistic milieu—a setting choice that contributed to the play’s success. I figure King Lear is a good start to my continued Shakespeare education, and the performance will have me coming back for more.