Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0824. Thursday, 19 October 1995.
From: Gail M. Burn <
Date: Friday, 20 Oct 1995 07:44:55 -0700
Subject: Review of "King Lear" at Williams College
I thought some of you might be interested, amused, appalled, whatever, by my
review of a VERY avant-garde production of "King Lear" that opened last night
(10/19) at Williams College, Williamstown, MA. Those of you in the Berkshires,
southwestern Vermont, or the Hudson or Connecticut River valleys might consider
the trek if this kind of thing intrigues you.
By the way, I cover Williamstown for the local daily paper, and, although I
have degree in theatre and a special love for Shakespeare, theatre reviews are
a very small part of my job and I write them for a very broad but very local
readership. I am not affliated with Williams College or the production in any
LEAR LARGER THAN LIFE
"No performance of a great play...can be ideal; but a performance, if
not too defective, can give us an experience we should not get from a
reading of the text...at home."
Kenneth Muir, Introduction to the Arden Shakespeare edition of
I found this phrase as I was preparing to attend the opening last night
of Shakespeare's "King Lear" on the MainStage of the Adams Memorial
Theatre. It struck me as interesting, since I assumed I would have to
be evaluating a non-traditional production of the play, and I decided
to use it as my measuring stick. I am glad that I did because, when I
read it over at intermission, and again after the final curtain, it
helped me to see that director David Herskovits and his large cast had
given me a look at Lear that I never would have received from a mere
reading of the script. Love it or hate it, this is a huge Lear, that
assaults the senses of sight and sound repeatedly and leaves one dizzy,
angry, appalled, and horrified in turn.
It should first be noted that Shakespeare did not provide a pretty
play, or even a good play, to start with. I have never been so struck
with the weakness of the plot before. As most high school graduates
know, Shakespeare, the great plagiarizer, took as a basis for Lear an
old folk-tale of a King and his three daughters, which had been
adapted, successfully, for the stage only a few decades earlier. The
only difference is that Shakespeare's play is a tragedy, where the
original had a happy ending.
If you only enjoy "traditional" productions of Shakespeare, with lots
of velvet pantaloons and Elizabethan neck ruffs, where blank verse is
declaimed by assorted Dukes, Earls and Lords who all blur into one, do
not go to this production. But if you enjoy the chance to look at old
things in new ways - and note that I am not saying they are better ways
or worse ways - then this production is well worth the $3.00 ($2.00
with Williams ID) and the three hours (this is uncut Shakespeare, after
The word that comes to mind to describe the production visually is -
transparent. Many actors wear transparent garments (made of clear
plastic) and the one set piece on stage is a large, moveable Plexiglas
wall, with various doorways cut in it, some of which are simply
openings in the wall and some of which have Plexiglas doors. I looked
up transparent in the thesaurus and came up with the following:
"Transparent - clear, unclouded, distinct, evident, obvious, plain,
unmistakable; antonyms: inaudible, confused, obstructed, obscure"
I find these words both apt descriptions of Lear and of this particular
production. There would be no tragedy if Lear only saw through his
elder daughters' deceit from the beginning. It is evident, obvious,
plain, and unmistakable - transparent - like the blouses and jackets
Goneril and Regan wear over their soiled costumes throughout the play.
Yet Lear, who begins the play "sane" and ends "mad", is confused, his
vision is obstructed, clouded. His eyes are opened and begins to see
through what was clear to us from the beginning as the play progresses.
The backdrop displays many medical and artistic renderings of eyes and
eyeballs. And the text is riddled with references to eyes and ears,
sight and blindness. Herskovits assails the senses of sight and sound
repeatedly. The costumes by Barbara A. Bell and David Morris are
brightly colored and garish, but all are soiled with make-up, sweat and
feces. The lights by Juliet Chia are bright, sometimes aimed directly
into the eyes of the audience, or bouncing off the Plexiglas wall,
turning it momentarily opaque. Loud, angry rock music blares
periodically - but nothing is small and quiet in Mimi Epstein's sound
design, except Cordelia (Narcisse Demeksa) - trumpets blast, thunder
booms, shots ring out. During the storm scene - in which there is a
shower unit and four huge fans on the stage, as well as amplified sound
effects - lines are shrieked above the din. Other times lines must be
bellowed over the music, sometimes through a megaphone.
This is Shakespeare staged by Brecht. I thought of Brecht's teachings
on "Epic Theatre" repeatedly during the show. At various times
characters wear signs around their necks. Lear's Fool (Annie Thoms)
wears a dunce cap proclaiming her "Stupid". Edgar, disguised as Poor
Tom (Rachel Hoover) wears a sign proclaiming her "Crazy", and in Act IV
Lear (Sean Tarrant) wears one that marks him as "Old", although it is
in that act that he is finally permitted to walk upright instead of
bent over his cane. The filth and blatant theatricality of the
production made me think more of Brecht's "Threepenny Opera" than of
Shakespeare and "King Lear".
In a show where so little is realistic - most roles are cast against
gender, for instance - the blinding of the elderly Earl of Gloucester
(Purva Bedi) is a shock. For those of you who have forgotten lines
such as the Duke of Cornwall's "Out, vile jelly!" while gouging out
Gloucester's eyeballs, let this be a reminder that by the end of Lear
blood and bodies litter the stage. This is Shakespeare's doing, but
the production at Williams offers little escape or relief from the
horrific behavior and grisly deaths of most of the main characters.
This is not a play for small children or the faint hearted.
But it is spectacular and unique. I dare say that I shall find it as
unforgettable visually as Peter Brook's famous production of "A
Midsummer Night's Dream". And the performances are uniformly good, and
memorable. I confess I re-read the play mostly so I wouldn't confuse
the Duke of Albany with the Duke of Cornwall with the Earl of
Gloucester with the King of France with... But how can you forget the
King of France when he wears a clear blue plastic coat over a spangled
jock-strap, carries a baguette for a scepter and speaks with an
outrageous French accent that is doubled by a microphone effect
reminiscent of Lou Gehrig's final words in "Pride of the Yankees"??
And it is easy to tell Goneril from Regan when Regan is played by a
man, even if they do both wear tutus on their heads.
"King Lear" runs October 19-21 and 25-28 at 8:00 PM on the MainStage of
the Adams Memorial Theatre at Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
Tickets are $3 ($2 with Williams ID) and are available at the box
office from 1:00-5:00 PM (Eastern), Monday through Friday. For
reservations call (413) 597-2425. Tickets must be picked up a
half-hour before curtain.