King Lear: Free-Speech Blowback
In Moscow a couple of years ago, I interviewed retired Russian Army Colonel Yuri Yuryevich, who was once editor of the Soviet military newspaper Red Star. Challenging the legend of Soviet repression of a free press, Yuryevich insisted that "We could say anything we wanted, except for calling the president an idiot. Why would one risk one's entire career to call Breshnev an idiot?" he explained, "which everybody already knew."
Yuryevich went on to express his wistfulness at watching the United States — now "alone on the world stage" making exactly the same mistakes made by the Soviet Union right before its empire collapsed. By this, he was referring to both nations' respective, rigid ideologies and the desire to control an uncontrollable world on borrowed resources. Obama was not yet president, but he was already speaking of transferring America's war on terror from Iraq to Afghanistan, which Yuryevich described as a quagmire that would sink us, as it had sunk the Soviet Union.
"Watching your behavior is like watching an old movie of ourselves," he said.
Just two years later, Republican National Chairman Michael Steele characterized the war in Afghanstian as "a war of Obama's choosing," before essentially calling the president an idiot: "If he's such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that's the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? All right? Because everyone who's tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed." (This is pretty much what Yuryevich had told me two years earlier.)
These words, and the opinions they carry, may cost Steele his job. He's being lambasted by Democrats and Republicans alike for hammering at the war effort with his free speech, which wasn't even a speech but offhand remarks caught on video. And despite his obvious agenda and job description to challenge the Democratic Party and its leaders, perhaps there's some truth to his words.
Where does our right to criticize authority begin and end? When does critique serve an agenda, and when does it serve a larger truth? Because the larger truths do eventually, inevitably come home. And what's the difference between telling the truth and merely being belligerent? Is defending the former condoning the latter? Are diplomacy and tact merely falsehoods, lies of omission, or are they vehicles to keep the conversation open, in the service of the truth? And when does flattery become duplicity?
These are the questions Shakespeare took head-on in his greatest play, King Lear, which Antaeus Company is presenting in North Hollywood in an unusually luminous, double-cast production.
Aging King Lear asks of his three daughters — as he's about to distribute his lands to them and their husbands — who loves him most? When the youngest, still unmarried Cordelia, refuses to indulge in the flattery at which her older sisters excel ("I cannot heave my heart into my mouth: I love your majesty according to my bond; no more nor less.") the old man's infantile rage leads to the banishment of this, his most beloved child. The subsequent distribution of his kingdom to the remaining flatterers leads to a civil war that will undo them all. The theme of speech, and its dubious freedoms, becomes filtered through a multitude of scenes: The king's Fool mocks his master: "I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are: they'll have me whipped for speaking true, thou'lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace." The Duke of Kent, whom Lear banishes for defending Cordelia, goes in disguise in order to continue serving the increasingly raving monarch. After lambasting the steward of the elder daughter with a bouquet of curses, Kent proceeds to insult all assembled: "Sir, 'tis my occupation to be plain: I have seen better faces in my time than stands on any shoulder that I see before me at this instant."
This is not a policy he's advocating, but a freedom of speech that presumes the right to belittle, gratuitously, everyone in his company, like a medieval precursor of Lenny Bruce. For these words, Kent is placed in the stocks, not unlike the way Bruce was jailed for his similarly "offensive" words.
The Antaeus company presents the play in repertory with two casts, each with more strengths than weaknesses, and both directed by Bart DeLorenzo with identical costumes and scenic concepts, and similar stage movement.
Dakin Matthews heads a version subtitled "The Fools," while Harry Groener plays the king in a rendition called "The Madmen."
In the 1980s and 1990s, when Joe Stern's Matrix Theatre was a prominent creative force, you'd see similarly double-cast productions with excellent ensembles, presumably in the interest of maximizing employment for the company members. In fact, Gregory Itzin, playing Kent in "The Madmen" worked with that company, too.
I feel no regret for the investment of time, having sat through both versions at two hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. Not only is the play a wonder, you can actually hear it, with lucidity and intelligence. Most productions wear out their welcome on the heath, when the play gets mired in the sludge and drenched in the tempest, and in metaphysical ruminations so obviously borrowed by Samuel Beckett ("When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools."). Not so DeLorenzo's staging, which just gets better as it rolls along.
The point of seeing it twice comes from identifying the nuances of subtly different interpretations. Matthews' Lear has a broader sweep of emotion. His anger is terrifying, his humor wry. This is the grandest I've ever seen him — difficult to empathize with, yet infinitely interesting to watch, for what sudden cruelty he may unleash on the next loyal steward — until a softening at the bitter end.
Groener's approach is gentler, his rage less ferocious, and his wit quicker on the draw.
The two Gonerils (Lear's eldest daughter) are substantively different in two very strong performances. Allegra Fulton's throaty Goneril recalls Estelle Parsons mingled with the late local performer, Pamela Gordon. Kirsten Potter plays the role with a lighter regality. Both imbue every syllable with clarity and purpose. Because Tessa Thompson was out of town filming during the opening two weeks, I saw Rebecca Mozo's Cordelia twice, in a portrayal of heartbreaking intensity and integrity.
In some of the supporting roles, there are noticeable differences of quality, which raises the paradox of depth versus breadth — whether in a company with such talent, the production would be better served by accruing the single, strongest cast, then perhaps switching out some of the roles to show the nuances of differing interpretations, instead of double casting the entire production and thereby weakening some of the production's connecting tissue.
Much of the play's inherent musicality is enhanced by sound designer John Zalewski's subliminal rumble during moments when the plot is grinding out some change of fortune, or the ironic use of birdsong on the heath. These are nicely supplemented by Lap Chi Chu's lighting scheme: When the bastard Edmund proclaims his ambitions, he steps forward so that his looming shadow swells behind him. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg's costumes have flavors from various eras, from Edwardian civilian attire, to World War II jodhpurs to contemporary military chic. All of this fits into the play's shape-shifting from revenge-melodrama to a dreamscape, as though we've all been catapulted into exile with King Lear, his Fool, blinded Gloucester and his son, Edgar, whom his father condemned on the basis of false, forged intelligence. All are now in rags. When Gloucester had eyes, he believed the con men. Now a wretch, and without eyes, he sees all.
Tom Buderwitz's set of cement slab walls eventually open to a small cyclorama of land and sky, separated by a ribbon of splatter, like mud, or blood.
"The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say," says the Duke of Albany in the play's closing lines.
Sigmund Freud believed that Cordelia represented death, and that Lear's banishment of her represented his inability to come to terms with his own impending demise. But Cordelia (and Kent) spoke the truth, for which she (and Kent) were both exiled. Lear was either unable or unwilling to come to terms with the truth — whether or not it was the truth of his own mortality.
At the end of my interview with Yuri Yuryevich, he had a kind of epiphany and wondered if, when working for Red Star, he had been contributing to a propaganda machine, however unwittingly.
"We're as free as we feel," he said.
What we feel depends on what we know, and how we come to know it. What we know depends on what we see, and how we see it, which leads to what we say, and how we say it.
Somewhere in all that, the truth hangs in the balance.
KING LEAR | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, presented by THE ANTAEUS COMPANY at DEAF WEST THEATRE, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. | Through Aug. 8 | (818) 506-1983
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.