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June 20, 2015
‘Not long ago I saw King Lear again’, commented ecocritic Ralph W. Black at a 1994 meeting of the Western Literature Association. In a way, he was seeing it for the first time – he described his newly-borne awareness of the ecological ‘transgression’ implied by the cutting up and parcelling out of land, against the natural order of things, with which the play opens. My mother, who came with me to the Northern Broadsides production at the Liverpool Playhouse, was seeing this play for the second time, but, for her, too, it was as if she was seeing it – really seeing it – for the first time. ‘They spoke sense’, she said. ‘I liked the way they talked normally without over-dramatising it. It was understated, and I think that’s what brought out the human feelings.’ Her comment was on the nail in describing what mattered in this production: clarity.
Its clarity was explained partly by the performance quality of the ensemble, acting like a well-oiled machine. Take that all-important opening scene, which sets (and here did a brilliant job of setting) the tone for the play. As Goneril and Regan were assigned their share of the spoils they almost did themselves an injury trying to see where it was on the map, whereas Cordelia stayed off to one side. Once she had spoken ‘nothing’, and persisted in it, Lear was not just angry; he was a man so hurt by Cordelia’s rejection that he couldn’t think straight. The reason why he compounds the error – carelessly leaving the carving up of Cordelia’s (carefully-selected fertile share) of land to someone else, and unthinkingly throwing his daughter into the hands of England’s traditional enemy, France – is suddenly crystal clear. Blinded by his distress Lear failed to see so much that we could see clearly in the audience – including the subtle look of disgust on Regan’s face as her dad announced he would keep the crown but hand over all the work. Even spectators who didn’t know the story would know this was going to end badly.
Design, set and blocking (better described as choreography here) were also designed with clarity in mind. Each scene change (requiring little more than moving bodies and words) was like a powerful first sentence in a new paragraph in the story, making it easy to follow the different narrative strands and their interconnectedness. If it had been possible to press the pause button, the scene on stage at almost any moment would have been an oil painting you’d want on your living-room wall – harmoniously posed and coloured, and beautifully lit. The simple set – a chess-board floor, a few pieces of simple wooden furniture, and an iron frame – was well-used, visually reinforcing and punctuating the action on stage. Cordelia, for instance, stood outside the frame in that first scene: different in being unwilling to engage in rhetorical prostitution, then cut off from the family as Lear disowned her.
Lear’s debut as a homeless wretch to the sound of a terrific thunder storm was interrupted, all too soon, by the interval. As I mentally resurfaced, the sound of rainfall (did I imagine it?) became the rustling of spectators stirring from their seats.
Most audiences watching King Lear would probably not describe it as eco-theatre at first sight. For Black, the penny possibly dropped as a result of an environmental re-contextualisation of the recorded performance quite a few years on from the original production, and two years on from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Speaking as a spectator, the eco-theatrical penny seemed to me to drop in this Northern Broadsides production because of the all too human emotional connections wrought in that first scene. When we see Lear reach a new understanding of the relationship between nature and the social order, empathy is the order of the day: ‘Oh I have ta’en too little care of this. [...]. | Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, | That thou may’st shake the superflux to them.’ III.4.32-35). As Black commented in his 1994 paper, ‘the ecosystemic relationships within a literary text will often reach out and implicate us in its web’.
Performance seen on 2nd May 2015.
See papers at this link for Black’s full article. http://www.asle.org/wp-content/uploads/ASLE_Primer_DefiningEcocrit.pdf