'Coarse. Hard. Unforgiving. It is rough, like Lear’s pride is rough, like the storm blasted heath is rough.'
Following on from their nightmarish vision of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Mechanicals now uncover their dangerously absurd conjuring of William Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Intimate Theatre from 4 April to 5 May 2012. Under the direction of Guy De Lancey, King Lear is performed by Graham Weir and a cast of Madmen, Whores and Jewellers. Inverting received notions of the inaccessibility of Shakespearean text, The Mechanicals strive to demystify the nostalgic reverence for the language, while at the same time steering away from a popularized send-up of the complexities of the material. This rendition of King Lear enmeshes the manic hilarity of suffering, the banality of bloodlust and the toxic vertigo of bloody lust. “Tis a naughty night to swim in”. (Fool; Act 3 Scene 4).
Gravel: Coarse. Hard. Unforgiving. It is rough, like Lear’s pride is rough, like the storm blasted heath is rough, but it is fine material upon which to stage Shakespeare’s great tragedy and director Guy De Lancey makes good use of it.
It covers the floor of the Intimate Theatre on UCT’s Hiddingh Campus, rasping against the actors’ boots, the sound and dust pushing the senses toward a madness in sympathy with Lear’s. It is a stroke of design genius. Simple and incredibly effective, especially in conjunction with the dark and bruised lighting, the smoke that hangs around the edges and the ragged dirt-streaked formal wear the actors perform in, suggestive of a blended goth-punk sensibility.
The lighting and design of this production by the deservedly award-winning The Mechanicals tunes into the frequency of the manic, depressive paranoiac, amplifying the sense of inevitable tragedy, the futile rage against the unalterable march of events that Lear’s folly set in motion.
Yet it would all come to nought were it not for the cast being able to turn the moon to blood (figuratively of course). Graham Weir as the proud king maddened by his folly and misfortune is the cornerstone upon which the play rests and he bears the weight with worrying aptitude. If one ever wondered whether Weir was a bit touched, his performance here confirms it. Grief-stricken madness becomes him. The steam-punk aspect of the Fool, played by Nicholas Pauling, fits seamlessly into the set and setting, and one simply wants to run a dagger through the officious wanker that is Darren Arraujo’s Duke of Cornwall. Which is exactly what one should feel toward such a pompous villian.
The flattering dishonest daughters Goneril and Regan played by Juliana Venter and Emily Child are the epitome of offhanded cruelty, Venter is superbly sullen, Child cool and condescending. Jeroen Kranenburg as the loyal but deceived Gloucester who’s fate follows a path similar to Lear’s would likely be more than competent as Lear should Weir wander too far up his character’s path.
Yet do not be fooled, while the design, direction and acting in this production are superb, making it the best staging of Shakespeare I have yet seen despite the rasping gravel occasionally drowning out the more soft-spoken dialogue, it is not a picnic in the park. This independent troupe is hardcore. They display a no-holds-barred approach to their craft and are uncompromisingly true to the letter and spirit of the text. When last did you see such a scene set that someone getting their penis slapped makes perfectly acceptable sense?
It is not popular entertainment – the very concept could well spark revolt among the troupe – it is disturbing, and riveting, as the best of any art form usually is. The subtitle on The Mechanicals’ poster is ‘This Time it Hurts’. It is not a trite catch phrase, it’s the truth, except they left two words off the end: ‘so good’. — Steve Kretzmann
A CONCOCTION of greed, lust for power, and anarchy, lead to madness and murder in one of the Bard’s most tragic of tragedies. King Lear, Graham Weir, is ready to hand over his kingdom to his three daughters, but petulantly forces the three to declare, and prove, their unwavering love and devotion to him.
The apple of his eye, Cordelia, Deborah Vieyra, refuses to give in to her father’s request, which sets off a series of events leading to a horrendous and inevitable tragedy.
Guy de Lancey’s direction of this bleak affair hits straight into the eye of the abyss, and it stays there, with only Nicholas Pauling’s Fool occasionally lifting it out for sporadic bursts of comic relief.
Weir’s character starts off in the play as the confident, if already a bit dotty, retiring king. However, when his beloved Cordelia does not give in to his whim, he literally throws his toys out of the cot in a very un-kingly fashion. His disbelief turns to anger and rage.
Madness starts seeping in as his two venomous daughters, Goneril, Juliana Venter, and Regan, Emily Child, turn on him as soon as they inherit their wealth.
“Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend, More hideous, when thou show’st thee in a child, Than the sea-monster,” Lear laments as he realises he favoured the two greedy sisters over the honest Cordelia and her servant Kent, Adrian Galley.
Kent appears to be the last honest man standing and Galley delivers a fine performance.
Venter and Child’s evil Goneril and Regan are chillingly effective as the wicked manipulating older sisters. Their final demise is truly horrid to behold.
There are many sub-plots creeping in from all angles to add to the drama. Edmund, Adrian Collins, is the delightfully despicable and evil manipulating bastard son of Gloucester, Jeroen Kranenburg who lusts after power.
Edmund plots a smear campaign against Gloucester’s son in a bid for ultimate power. Edmund and his cronies are perhaps representative of the New World’s youthful disregard for respect and hard work in favour of greed, instant gratification, and a hunger for power.
While all the actors in King Lear are clearly passionate, there were a few elements of the play that were disturbing. The entire floor stage floor is covered in stark white gravel which, when combined with the minimalistic lighting and black surrounding walls and roof, gave the striking and surreal appearance of a cold wasteland – the abyss – perhaps reflective of the king’s inner turmoil. Visually it is very effective, however whenever an actor crossed the stage the gravel made quite a noise which became distracting at times when it overpowered the actors’ voices.
The smoke machine’s rapid bursts were equally distracting at times and it even appeared to disturb some of the actors on stage.
At times the actors’ voices did not quite carry across the theatre, and their words became a little incoherent. All the elements and performances considered, Guy de Lancey manages to capture the bleakness and despair of the play very well and he clearly knows how to coax his actors into fearless performances. Weir makes a good Lear in that he evokes a plethora of emotions in us as he wrangles with himself, those around him, and ultimately, his sanity.
Well the Mechanicals have done it again. And by “it” I mean Shakespeare. This time it’s King Lear, and it’s a rip-roaring, thigh-smacking, willy-whacking wale of time at the Intimate.
Lear, played by Graham Weir, has never been this real. None of the usual OTT Days of Our Lives inspired Shakespearean tragedy nonsense here. This is an actor who grips you by the balls (or whatever you prefer) and doesn’t let go. From the start to the finish he had us enthralled by his richly woven characterization, his Boer-king sound, the madness. We could have watched him for days. But Stal’s already been in trouble with the po-po for that last stalking incident.
Adrian Collins oozes onto stage as Edmund like a beatnik hipster full of the Miami Vice. He skillfully fucks with rhythm and meter, creating a musicality that will both draw you in and repulse you. How to describe his performance? Delicious. Like that bit of Jimmy’s Steakhouse Sauce that coagulates between the top of the bottle and the lid (Extra tangy and a little bit yucky).
Darren Arraujo’s Cornwall is delicate, precise and subtle. Don’t get the wrong idea though. The malice he embodies is deadly and well crafted, present in even the smallest of vocal gestures. He gave us the heebie jeebies.
Nick Pauling plays the fool with finesse. Like Bruce Lee’s kid making out with the Joker.
Shaun Acker’s MontyPythonesque physicality and whimsical vocal affectation adds a solid dash of what-the-fuck to the mix, driving you headfirst into the madness.
Adam Neil got us thinking of hermit crabs, transformation and for a brief moment, Roy from the IT Crowd. Probably the County Roscommon accent.
Kent and Gloucester are strong and full-flavoured as the supportive silverbacks.
As for the blondes… Wowee! Emily Child and Juliana Venter are a couple of evil bitches, yo. Child’s scary lesbo chick is the perfect foil to Venter’s loose legged lady, a pair of Machiavelli mamas who sure can do the dance of death. Deborah Viera’s Cordelia is original, rooted and sensitive. It’s fun to watch her stand up to the baddies.
Some of the little touches we particularly enjoyed were Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as the Burgandies, Adam Neil’s winkie and the sexy costume design, courtesy of Leila Anderson and Alicia McCormick.
During the interval we overheard a lady with too much hair saying, “Jinne vok, maar daai De Lancey has the knack of getting a space to transform.” Couldn’t have said it better ourselves. The design elements are sparse, well integrated and support the action by emphasising the mood and atmosphere of the work. A crunchy floor, a weathered deck-chair and one motherfucker of an axe contribute nicely to the post-apocalyptic-broken-down-former-glory-eat-or-be-eaten vibe.
Locales are suggested rather than re-hashed while lighting is at times dim, at times harsh and gritty. The soundscape is surreal: gravel underfoot, doors banging and canned laughter make it a sensory experience you’ll not easily forget.
Between us we’ve seen at least thirteen productions of Lear, so we know how it ends. But we found ourselves hoping against all hope that this time it would be different, and THAT is when we realized that this was some flipping good theatre. We were believing it. We were responding to it, understanding it and sympathizing with a King. Us, a couple of okes from Milnerton and Constantia, living in the good ‘ol R of SA in 2012, were identifying with the wild misfortune of a cuckoo King and his bitch daughters. So how the fuck does that happen? Simple. When the acting is good and the direction is unencumbered by stupid ideas of how Shakespeare “should” be done, the text gets a chance. And that Willy Shakespeare knew how to craft a play.
KING LEAR--THIS TIME IT HURTS: directed by Guy de Lancey. The Intimate Theatre, University of Cape Town, April-May 2012. (The Mechanicals repertory company.)
The subtitle of Guy de Lancey's production of King Lear, "This Time it Hurts", suggests something of the bold rough energy that characterises this version of the ancient story of a king brought low by his rash decisions. It suggests too the mock portentous slogan of an action film sequel--one thinks of the sequels to Die Hard (1988). De Lancey's is an impressively bleak and 'bad' interpretation of Lear, but bad only in the sense of 'hardcore', unrestrained.
This lack of restraint is embodied in part in Lear's increasingly desperate and despairing descent into disregard and destitution, following his decision to divide his kingdom between his older daughters Gonerill and Regan on the grounds of their public avowal of love for him, his disowning of his youngest daughter Cordelia for refusing the invitation to do the same, and his dismissal of Kent for questioning his judgement in the matter. Lear's fall from arrogance to abjection is movingly conveyed by Graham Weir, whose powerful voice carries the regal weight lacking in his lean frame. There is unmistakable emotional force in his portrayal of Lear in the stages of his demise: in 1.1 aggressive with power, seated suited with a crown of bullets on his head and a battle-axe across his thighs; in 2.4 furious with indignation at his daughters' disrespect for his authority in setting his man (Kent in disguise) in the stocks; in 3.2 crazed with desolation out in the worst of the storm; in 5.3 boyish with affection at his reunion with Cordelia (Deborah Vieyra). There is little to fault in Weir's portrayal of the toss and pitch of Lear's emotions, save perhaps a bias towards the loud and violent utterance over the tonally varied. But even this bias is justifiable in a monarch beset with paranoia about his senility.
Lear's loss of authority and self-possession leads to his physical disrobing and the unhinging of his wits with 'Poor Tom' in 3.4. If Lear's role calls for stretches of impassioned outburst and so courts the risk of over-acting, Edgar-as-Tom o'Bedlam runs a similar risk in that the role invites a schizophrenic performance of scattered wit and wits. Adam Neill excels at the role of vagrant philosopher to the extent that he seems ill-cast as Edgar in the first place. In his gullible jolly-golfer guise as Edgar (it is his golf-ball that brings him onto the stage in 1.2) there is already a hint of the manic edge that will stand out in the Tom he will shortly play. Neill outdoes himself as Tom: or rather, Neill's Tom outdoes his Edgar--it seems hard for Neill to quieten or constrain himself into the role of Edgar after he has been excited out of himself by Tom's 'madness'.
Aptly, it is in the wild scene of the storm on the heath (3.4), when Lear finds in Edgar-as-Tom an image of "unaccommodated man"--sans shelter, clothes, reason--that the play delivers its most perverse moment: Tom, pinioned from behind and gabbling his nonsense in frontal nakedness, is approached by the Fool on all fours, quizzical as a cat, who slaps Tom/Edgar/Neill's penis. A month of such slappings would be enough to turn anyone a-Tom: but if this gesture is unnecessary it is also effective. In itself it is little more than an aside, in keeping with the Fool's random behaviour (Tom continues his rant unperturbed ... or not less perturbed than before). More broadly it works to reinforce the air of the edgy and unpredictable--the 'mad' that is characteristic of Lear as much as the Fool and Tom throughout the play, and that De Lancey draws out so well. There are other less successful attempts to capture Lear's mental volatility: for example, the canned laughter of a studio audience that in 3.1 is piped in to intersperse a conversation between Kent (Adrian Galley) and a Gentleman (John Skotnes). This intervention is puzzling: though Lear is the subject of their conversation and the laughter emphasises his sense of himself as a risible figure hounded out of his wits by his own errors and others' connivance, in this scene it jars with the two men's solemn conversation about the beleaguered king. It would have worked better if it had occurred in a scene in which Lear himself was present (perhaps 1.4 or 2.4). But to return to the penis-slapping moment: if this gesture startles and discomforts the audience, then that is as it should be--not to puzzle but to provoke, to wrong-foot their expectations of this classic tragedy without lapsing into the gratuitous or (and this is a finer point) the absurd.
In his 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Lear, with Michael Gambon as Lear and Antony Sher as the Fool, director Adrian Noble drew out the absurd element in the play by borrowing some of the mise-en-scene of Beckett's Endgame, notably an oil-drum in which the Fool expires (Halio 51-2). In De Lancey's 2012 production the stage-set and atmosphere recall Beckett in their post-apocalyptic bleakness. This is achieved mainly through a stage strewn with bleached gravel, evocative of the shore of some void. Gusts of smoke piped regularly onto the stage from fringes of the small theatre-space enhance the cold and eerie atmosphere. Lighting and music and stage-props are minimal, which is as much in keeping with the minimalism of the Beckettian aesthetic as the minimalism of the Mechanicals' budget ("nothing comes from nothing"--except, in this case, fine theatre). The characters' outfits befit the blasted landscape in their ruined opulence and eccentricity. Each character seems to have stepped out of a different era or genre: the supercilious Cornwall (Darren Arraujo), thin and pompous and bespectacled in a blazer hung with military decorations; Gonerill (Juliana Venter) in elegant black evening dress, her face a permanent sneer; Regan (Emily Child) in satiny blouse and no-nonsense skirt, with back-slicked hair like a character out of Star Wars; the hip, slouchy Edmond (Adrian Collins) conspiring against his brother in white jacket and pointy shoes; and the Fool (Nick Pauling) an image of sartorial license: he wears a gas-mask on his forehead, frilled collar and oversized cuffs, a candy-striped school-blazer, Crusoe breeches and laceless boots, and, like Heath Ledger's Joker in Nolan's Dark Knight (2008), a bad make-up job. What marks these and the other characters as co-habitants of the same blighted time and place are dustings of ash-powder on their shoulders and shirtfronts and in their hair.
A conservative critic might object to certain of De Lancey's interpretations ('misreadings', 'perversions') of moments in the original text, such as the following: Kent challenging Oswald to "draw" sword and fight (2.2.31), when what ensues is a skilfully choreographed WWF sequence in which Oswald (the supple and effeminate Shaun Acker), in gardening gloves, is flung from wall to wall of the theatre, up-ended, and man-handled by Kent (the burly Adrian Galley); Lear saying, while kneeling, "Here I stand your slave" (3.2.18); Edgar as Tom o'Bedlam going stark naked, when in the original his near-nakedness is noted by the Fool, "Nay, he reserved a blanket, else we had been all shamed" (3.4.61). The question is not whether these interpretations are wilful but how they work in the context of De Lancey's interpretation of the play as a whole. The fight scene mentioned above is hilarious, and at the level of plot the counterpoint in physique and manner of Kent and Oswald dramatises the shift of power away from Lear insofar as his brawny and loyal representative is, if not bested in combat by the fairy-physiqued Oswald, then roundly taunted and laughed at afterwards by the latter and his protectors (Gonerill, Regan and Cornwall), who shortly put Kent in the stocks. If one objects to De Lancey's literal interpretation of Tom's nakedness or Lear on his knees as an image of himself utterly reduced by his daughters and the elements to a "slave", then one must take issue, finally, with the creative interplay between literal and figurative in the original text. Led uphill by his son Edgar disguised as a peasant to what he is told is the edge of a cliff, the blinded Gloucester throws himself forward and falls. We are asked to imagine the fall and at the same time, with Edgar, bear witness to Gloucester's credulity. Without eyes Gloucester cannot tell the height he's fallen or whether he's fallen at all--he must believe the stranger (Edgar) who approaches and confirms how far he's plummeted. The stranger goes on to suggest, as this episode suggests for a reading of the play as a whole, here given to us in De Lancey's superbly provocative interpretation: "Bear free and patient thoughts" (4.5.80).