As part of my fellowship, I’m traveling to different spots around the globe (it sounds more cosmopolitan than it actually is) watching performances of some of Shakespeare’s best works. I won’t say great performances of his works, but for the most part, my time spent in the theater has been pretty good.
My latest foray into the theatrical world found me in our nation’s capital: DC. My first stop wasn’t directly related to performance, but rather a trip to the Folger’s Library to view pieces of their collection. For those not in the know, this is sort of like Mecca for geeky Shakespeare academics. They actually have 1/3 of all the surviving first folios in their collection, which is pretty impressive. I actually got a chance to look at one of them, and I’ll be honest, I kind of teared up a little. The book, as you can see, is beautiful and they even have a digital copy on display for all viewers. They have scanned in the introductory material as well as the text of Romeo and Juliet and visitors who want to see the oldest surviving text of the play, can flip through and see what the actors themselves saw, complete with “s’s” that look like “f’s.” It’s beautiful!
Their current display also features books, pamplets and letters from Shakespeare’s day, as well as some later versions (mostly Victorian) to show the impact Shakespeare had on the world. This particular piece is actually a surviving piece of writing from Shakespeare’s own hand. The collection also contained books of Shakespeare given as gifts from such prestigious admirers s Queen Victoria, Walt Whitman and Edwin Booth, a famous 19th century Shakespearean actor and brother to presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth.
After we spent a good hour at the exhibit (and another half of one in the tiny gift shop), we grabbed a quick bite, then trucked over to the Sidney Harrman Hall to see the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of King Lear. Unlike my three productions in London, this show was set in very modern times. Although no specific place is mentioned in the play (or the notes), it had a definant Eastern European flair to me. Everything was sort of new money, but not in an inheritance way. More of a the country is finally modernizing a little and flourishing. Everything about the play was modern, from Cordelia wearing jeans in the first act, to the Regan and Cornwall arriving at Glouster’s compound with their entourage in a car.
This particular play also starred Stacy Keach as Lear.
There were some great things about this play. Stacy Keach was pretty convincing as a self-obsessed tyrant of sorts who goes mad when he realizes his world is not at all what he thought (and that it’s his own darn fault). Kent, played by Steve Pickering was great. He was loyal, funny and tough, exactly what I wanted Kent to be. Cornwall and Regan were both dispicable, but in a way that was also a bit fun to watch. The sets were spectacular. As I mentioned earlier, they drove a car on stage, something I always like. The opening scene was set in a club complete with DJ booth and cake to be divided, symbolizing Lear’s land. The second half of the play had some great staging around an obviously war torn country–the set was full of exploded cars and a landscape turned upside down. Edgar/Poor Tom was fairly convincing as a mad man and when he talked about going around in his poor weeds, he didn’t play around. He got 100% naked on stage. Yes, I saw Tom’s dingle. I was not expecting that.
I was also not expecting the other nudity. I saw Stacy Keach’s rear, a completely naked Cordelia and at least another butt or two before the play ended. Now, I’m no prude and I thought for Poor Tom it was really appropriate. Even for Lear it was kind of right. He was, after all, following Poor Tom into madness. The rest seemed a bit gratuitous to me.
As did all the smoking on stage. I’m not a huge fan of actors smoking on stage. It didn’t add anything and I could actually smell it a couple of times. I was also not a fan of the Fool. He was as old, if not older than Lear (he shuffled when he walked) and not at all what I wanted the Fool to be. I love the character. I saw it done a few years ago where the Fool and Cordelia were played by the same actress and I have to admit, I loved it. In this version, Lear calling the Fool boy was ridiculous. Especially since when he first begins doing it, he’s not mad. Not to mention that one thing I like about the Fool is that he has a lively wit and always seemed young to me. In this version he seemed to have one foot in the grave.
I also thought some of the sex was a bit over the top. In the opening act, Lear grabs Regan’s ass. Now, I realize it definetly adds a level of ickyness to their relationship, but it’s one Shakespeare does not imply and one that seems out of place. This production also had two, count them two, scenes with someone simulating oral sex on Goneril. Now I realize Shakespeare is full of bawdy jokes, but I just thought it seemed out of place, especially since one of the performers was her servant Oswald. Sure, it shows what a terrible person she is, but I think Shakespeare’s words do such a great job of it that this was over kill to me.
As was some of the clutter on the stage. At times, it just got too busy for me. Like in the scene where the extras brought all the wrapped dead bodies on to the stage. It was obviously a statement about the horrors of war, but I found it a bit heavy handed and it did drag on a bit. Body, after fake body were carried on and then they had to be dumped.
Overall though, I did like the play. It had it’s flaws, sure, but it also had a great scene where Goneril choked Regan to death. In the scene she begins by comforting her, then strangles her as she’s patting her head and shushing her. GREAT! It also left out Edmund’s small redemption speech, which I’ve always hated. Edmund is such an amazingly dispicable character that I’ve always thought his little “act” of coming clean and letting them know what happened was cheap. I liked it better when he had no real chance to be remorseful in anyway. He’s not a sympathetic character and deserves no sympathy.
So, while not my favorite show (As You Like It), it’s also not my least favorite so far (Romeo and Juliet). I’d put it directly in the center.