BY JON HOULON THEATER CRITIC I used to beat myself up over not being able to recall much of what I read. For instance, the only thing I remembered from the 400 plus pages of Kerouac’s rather spotty Desolation Angels was the word “passersby.” At least I got a song out of it — and that’s a fact, Jack!
But then I read U and I by the great Nicholson Baker where he admits to only retaining a tiny bit of his literary hero John Updike’s canon. I figured if Baker could only summon up a phrase or two of JU then my own lack of retention wasn’t something to necessarily worry about. Until my recent deep dive into Shakespeare (which I wrote about here), the only line I could remember from Lear was Cornwall’s “out vile jelly!” which he delivers while relieving Gloucester of the same. Even thinking of that phrase always makes me blink if only to make sure my eyes are still in my head!
At the radically edited production of King Lear at the Bristol Riverside Theater, which ended its run last night, they only performed the scenes that included the King himself. There was, alas, no vile jelly plucked from Gloucester’s sockets, at least not on the stage. A disappointment for sure. How could there be no vile jelly?
They did, however, retain Lear’s infamous cri-de-coeur: “Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.” I’ve puzzled over this line. Why five negations? Could it be the formal requirements of iambic pentameter or is it something more profound? To be sure, five may be wanting nowadays. Off the top of my head here’s a quintet:
Never have I been more embarrassed to be an American.
Never have I felt more East Coast and elite.
Never have I more ardently wished that the Kiss concert I reviewed last week for Phawker would have lasted forever.
Never has Shakespeare felt more relevant to me.
Never has Lear, in particular, felt more apropos. A mad King demanding complete loyalty and banishing those who do not conform. Sound familiar?
Director Eric Tucker – who heads up New York’s Bedlam theater and was voted Director of the Year in 2014 by the Wall Street Journal (the ultimate in fake news!) – pulls the phallic plug, as it were, in his Lear, subtitled “Who Is It Who Can Tell Me Who I Am.?” I’m not sure, Maestro, but I was intrigued by the all-female cast and what that would mean in terms of the male gaze – I found my own gaze leering at this uniformly attractive bunch.
The concept of an all-female cast is hardly problematic: in Elizabethan times, men or boys played the women’s roles. Take Twelfth Night, for example, where the part of Viola would have been played by a boy playing a woman playing a man. Willie the Shake was no cis-gender square, I tell you.
The interesting thing about Tucker’s take in Bristol was that the females in the cast playing the men did not necessarily pretend to be male. King Lear, played by the wonderful Zuzanna Szadkowski, appeared as a Cosmo drinking, purse carrying, red fingernail-ed and lipsticked mama whose ample bosom more than filled out her purple dress. She shed that dress as well as her wig in her transition into madness, pouring water over her own head and reinserting the phallus into the proceedings in the form of a whiskey bottle wedged between her thighs which she stroked in onanistic fury. A most peculiar King – or should I say Queen? – Lear, indeed. Affecting, nonetheless.
Szadkowski modulated her Nevers to a peak by the third and then a quieting on the last two. The effect was one of fearful symmetry; defiance followed by resignation. Now that unfortunately sounded very familiar.
Curiously, the last two Shakespeare productions I’ve attended have been along the Delaware. First, Hamlet at the Seaport, and then Lear further upstream in Bristol. Like a river, Shakespeare, in the most capable hands, flows beautifully in spite of the Bard’s sometimes jagged plots. The language carries things. But the compression of these tributary productions from their four hour folios to less than two hour presentations resulted in a fractured feel. But, then, a fracture may, in fact, be more apposite to these times.
Tucker ended his Lear on a hopeful note of reconciliation – a note that perhaps best encapsulates the reorienting of the male gaze into a more female one, a more receptive vs. aggressive one – between the Queen and her estranged but now redeemed youngest daughter, Cordelia. The Shakespeare original contains no such note. And I’m afraid neither does our future.