Time and again Belarus Free Theatre confound audience’s theatrical notions and preconceptions and they do so here, once more, with spectacular aplomb. Defiantly performed in Belarusian, a language outlawed by the dictatorship in their own country, BFT’s slightly truncated version of King Lear rollicks along at a furious pace and, for those of us used to reverent, more conventional productions, this stylish extravaganza is a breath of revelatory, revolutionary air and a bit of a shocker.
Its cultural, social fabric is organised around Belarusian folk songs and dance. Ironical and cynical trombones are substituted for trumpets, which the fool has a great old time playing, punctuating dramatic moments. Nothing is sacrosanct, famous lines where commonly an audience will hold their breath as great actors carefully and gingerly work up to them “Nothing will come of nothing” or “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” for example, disappear into the frenetic energy and theatrical inventiveness that marks this company out. The effect is not to lose their meaning, but to reveal even more as attention and equality are given to all of the text.
Every entrance and exit is scrutinised and utilised. Never have I seen such a long, drawn out, comically sustained entrance of King Lear as he makes his way onstage for the first time. We wait, with bated breath, and yet when Aleh Sidorchyk shuffles on, bent over and gnarled with a head full of long silver flowing hair, we don’t know where we are. Are we in Beckett’s existentialist landscape? Is this the grand revered Lear or is he a street bum living in the side streets of some dilapidated city? It’s not Lear of course, not this decrepit anyway, he shrugs off his wig, pulls himself up and reveals himself to be middle aged and swinging a heavy silver gauntlet, not 80, but still in the prime of his life. Is this the dictator Lukashenko, fearful of losing power, and are his daughters really his son Kolya perhaps? The joke’s on us and we laugh, but there’s also something else going on here that sets the tone for the rest of the show- deluded duplicity- a bit like the dictatorship that the company are forced to endure back in its own country in Belarus. But we are also shown a Lear that does not want to get old, a Lear making a joke over his impending old age, a Lear who is deeply frightened at losing control but who yet and nevertheless, gives that control away.
Much humour and yet implied incestuous relationships are revealed in what becomes a ritualistic medieval pageant where the daughters express their love for Lear as if performing a version of the X Factor. As Goneril, Regan and Cordelia all sing and dance their way into his good books, or, his clenching silver fist, we feel that they have done this before and the songs, apart from Cordelia’s, have been learned by rote. The production also has a running joke, Lear’s carving up of England is represented by heaps of soil gathered up by the daughters into their dresses and then coveted in their arms as if they are pregnant with the land. This soil is later in their goblets of wine, like ashes from the cremated dead and to be returned to the land once more as Goneril and Regan lose their power and Lear and Cordelia die. A comment on the carving up of Crimea perhaps or Ukraine?
Bodies are also anybody’s. It’s not just Lear who practises a boundary-less dictatorial control over his daughters, by turns kissing them on the lips, or grasping them in a sort of pyramid as they dance with himself at its epicentre, or, alternatively, gripping their hair in a relentless anger with his silver gauntlet as if their bodies are an extension of himself.
Gloucester too is made into a wheelchair bound war injured tyrant who pees when he feels like it into a urinal his bastard son Edmund luckily has at hand. When Edmund cons him into believing that his heir Edgar plots to kill him, his reaction is to beat Edmund mercilessly with the strap of a leather belt. We see how the children suffer at the hands of despotic dysfunctional unconscious men who regard their offspring as nothing more than punch bags. Ruled by dictators, the children struggle to be people.
Nevertheless, commonly interpreted saints Edgar and Cordelia, are not without blame too. Cordelia sees her entreaty of love as a silly game, her nervousness which makes her giggly, a result of fearing what her father may do to her. Like Goneril and Regan, she displays the infantilism, the pull towards and away, that comes with being abused with a sort of Stockholm Syndrome tenderness. Unlike Goneril and Regan, she is too innocent, lacking their rather hard hearted and indulgent turning impatient air towards their father. Later, alone in France and an unhappy marriage, Cordelia drinks. Edgar too, poshly unsympathetic and sexually liberal and drug addicted at first, forced into becoming Poor Tom, covers himself in his own faeces and runs around the stage as if tripping in a field full of poppies in the Wizard of Oz. When Lear and Poor Tom find each other, it's the sense of each being outlawed that draws them together. And when Lear sees Poor Tom for the first time, it is one of the most pertinent, moving and most still of the whole play. In other productions, Lear and Poor Tom have always felt distinct from one another, as if their plights are unrelated. Yet here we feel that Lear and his values are somehow to blame for Poor Tom and when Lear sees him, naked and smelling, it is as if the King suddenly grasps for the first time that Poor Tom’s condition is not separate from his own, not independent but interdependent and that Lear himself, is powerless.
This is underlined with the heath scene and Lear’s famous speech “ Blow, winds! Blow until your cheeks crack! Rage on, blow!” where Lear’s words are consumed by the rattle of the blue tarpaulin which is the wind and the raging blue sea, providing the conditions for Lear’s epiphany.
The stark conclusion to King Lear is ghastly and ghostly. Cordelia is hung by masked men who may be part of some Russian mafia. Edgar and Edmund spar through bodily hugs. Lear’s crying out over Cordelia is a half whisper as he ends the play in much the same manner he began, crouched over and gnarled. The beauty of his passing is marked with Cordelia’s very real mystical ghostly coming back to life just as Lear thinks she lives.
The end of the play comes quickly and indistinctly. It is as though none of the characters left alive knows what to do next. Most King Lears finale with a grand sense of climax, a great summing up, with everyone waiting for the final words of wisdom from Albany:
“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
Director Vladimir Shcherban provides the audience with no such comfort. Instead, after the King has gone, everyone is left wondering, what next? Which is sort of what it is like really. When one unhappy dysfunctional human being is removed from power, there must be a moment of stillness. A sense of freedom, where everything that has been known, has been stripped away. This is the sense at the end King Lear here. Freedom.
performers: Aleh Sidorchyk, Andrei Urazau, Elias Faingersh, Dzianis Tarasenka, Kiryl Kanstantsinau, Maryna Yurevich, Pavel Haradnitski, Siarhei Kvachonak, Victoria Biran, Yana Rusakevich, Yuliya Shauchuk, Yuriy Dalivelya, Maryia Sazonava
directed by: Vladimir Shcherban
adaption: Nicolai Khalezin