at Shakespeare’s Globe, Thursday 17th May 2012
I have never experienced a deeper silence at the Globe. As Lear wheels on his executed daughter and mourns her passing, everyone stops moving, stops breathing even, and seem to synchronise their heartbeats in order that we can comprehend more fully the enormity of the situation played out in front of us. For a minute at least, London seems to stop for this experience to take place unencumbered by external factors.
What lies at the heart of the Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear is a defiant sense of passion, and the freedom to express feelings no matter what. Naturally, this is helped by our knowledge of the company’s background, but what comes through loud and clear is the importance of speaking out; only once the characters in this production have made an attempt to put their thoughts into spoken words to they achieve some kind of happiness.
Vladimir Shcherban’s production presents us with an utterly broken state, which punishes those who fight against corruption and causes its population to turn mad. The company is careful not to show us black-and-white portraits, as our sympathy constantly shifts; no one is completely good just like no one is completely evil.
Nicolai Khalezin’s adaptation plays freely with Shakespeare’s original, intercutting additional scenes (such as Cordelia singing about her father) and changing the emphasis in the last few scenes so we watch the demise of the leads. Once again proof that Shakespeare is not sacred and his that his texts can and should be adapted in order to present specific ideas.
There is an urgency in the ensemble’s performance which heightens the sense of passion (though sometimes it’s difficult to hear them). The cast has been pared down to its bare essentials in order to tell the story more clearly, and although some may complain of the inaudibility of the actors, I found that the juxtaposing of loud choruses with quiet speeches underlined the message of the people having power. Pavel Garadnitski’s Gloucester, though young, does a fine job of portraying the anguish and loneliness of this man, aided by the fact the stories of Edgar and Edmund have taken a back-seat to make way for the three sisters. Victoryia Biran’s Cordelia is not the quiet, waif-like creature she is often portrayed as, instead preferring a more sinister approach in order to be on par with Goneril and Regan. They are played by Yana Rusakevich and Maryna Yurevich respectively, and preside in an utterly self-interested sphere, so much so that their relationship verges on incestuous. At the centre of it all is Aleh Sidorchik’s arrogant Lear, whose decent into madness comes extremely early and who is less concerned with the love of his daughters than cold, hard power, which only serves to make his final realisation all the more painful.
This production shows a superlative understanding of the importance of imagery in theatre. Nice ideas like using real earth to demonstrate the delineation of land and playing with the concept of mental and physical ability reach their climax during the stunning storm scene, using only a large tarpaulin, some water and a couple of long coat tails. It’s as good a storm scene at you’ll see at our subsidised powerhouses at a fraction of the cost. In an intelligent twist, Shcherban brings back the idea during the battle scene but substitutes the blue tarp for a red one. This, coupled with the high-pitched moans of a saxophone and Belarusian poems by Andrei Khadanovich, makes for a chilling finale.
It’s difficult to do this production justice in one review; the sheer dearth of ideas and intensity of the final scenes is difficult to put into words. It’s a remarkably brave and determined production, and though it is deeply tragic there is also a pure optimism discovered in the reappearance of the bodies in the final image. This feeling of hope is exacerbated by the tension released by a company who has to perform in secret in their home country having free reign in the most public of theatres. We know, like Kent, that awful pasts can be confined to the shelves of history if the masses come together to share their passion.