Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Theatre review: King Lear (Belarus Free Theatre / Globe to Globe)

I won't be in the least bit surprised if international productions become a regular feature at Shakespeare's Globe for years to come. For now though this is the last of them, King Lear from Belarus Free Theatre concluding the quartet of encore performances from last year's Globe to Globe festival. The programme reminds us that this is a company working partly in exile from Europe's last remaining dictatorship, so a play that opens with a controversial reallocation of power seems a natural fit. Lear in Vladimir Shcherban's production isn't an old man; the casting of Aleh Sidorchyk is meant to identify him with a younger military dictator; he's clearly not past the age of being able to govern so perhaps his abdication in favour of his daughters is a political move, intended to be symbolic but ending up horribly literal. Having given all his powers to the two daughters who flattered him the most, Lear finds himself cast out into the elements when they show their true colours.

The Belarusian production is stylised and scatological but comparatively true to Shakespeare's story, especially at the start. Although as it goes on more scenes are cut and reordered, and there's some notable changes like Goneril, rather than Cornwall, helping Regan blind the Duke of Gloucester. (There's also the possibility that Shcherban gives an extra victory to the bad guys by letting Goneril, Regan and Edmund live at the end, but I suspect it may just have been that their deaths were staged so symbolically that I didn't register them.)

As ever, the performance is captioned with scene descriptions rather than full translations and I know the play a bit too well to comment on how well it would come across to a newcomer, but it certainly seems a very clear telling of the story, with some very effective directorial choices: Asked to compete for their father's love, the daughters dress in twee traditional peasant dress and sing and dance their flattery to him. Once this has had the desired effect though they change into gaudy jewellery and furs, and revert to song to deny him his demands and kick him out.

There's an interesting treatment of the Gloucester subplot too, unusually sympathetic to Edmund. Here, the bastard (Yuriy Dalivelya) is bullied by his Eurotrash brother Edgar (Siarhei Kvachonak,) and clearly seen as the lesser son by his father (Pavel Radak-Haradnitski) who pisses out of his wheelchair making Edmund catch it in a pot. It's not particularly hard to sympathise, then, if he turns on them. Unfortunately as Edmund is then largely sidelined by the production, there's not much opportunity to see how this interpretation would extend through the rest of the play.

I was only partly joking, when talking about the Secret Theatre shows, when I said the European theatrical model the Lyric aspires to revolves around gratuitous nudity and wasting food, and Belarus Free Theatre bear me out here. Edgar, Lear, the Fool and Kent all have aFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!while Lear later embraces one of 2013's more unexpected theatrical memes by smashing a load of eggs. The characterisation of Kent as a wounded war veteran goes a bit weird when he's banished, and putting on a disguise for his return also somehow makes his amputated legs grow back. But there's a lot of very successful ideas as well, including a simple but spectacularly staged storm scene.

I don't know how intentional one of the other unusual touches is: In the midst of all the Belarusian we have two English actors, responding to the translated text with Shakespeare's original lines. Given the programme notes' horror stories of Belarus Free Theatre cast members being hounded and threatened with enforced conscription by the authorities, it's entirely possible a couple of Belarusian actors couldn't make it and the company had to co-opt locals at the last minute. Still, Chris Bone's Fool uses the language barrier to build up an interesting relationship with Sidorchyk's Lear, and the company's (uncharacteristic, apparently - they prefer modern plays or their own work) take on a classic is far more effective than their recent Trash Cuisine down the road.

King Lear by William Shakespeare in a version by Yurka Hauruk is booking in repertory until the 28th of September at Shakespeare's Globe.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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