“Will it be in English?” my companion asked when I invited him to join me in seeing the Belarus Free Theatre production of King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare Theater earlier this month.
It’s a reasonable question: Lear is now generally hailed as Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, a play in which a man alone on a heath faces the uncaring tempestuous skies as he slowly loses his reason once his identity is stripped from him. “Who is it can tell me who I am?” he asks. Bereft of Shakespeare’s rich verse, who does Lear become? Can any rewritten version measure up to the original?
This production proves that the play loses none of its force in translation. I cannot think of a company more suited to reinventing this story: like Kent, Cordelia and Edgar, all of whom risk their lives in the face of tyrannical wrath, the members of the Belarus Free Theatre have all faced persecution in what is now the last remaining European dictatorship. Several company members live in exile. Banned on political grounds and forced underground, the company is committed to principles of social justice, freedom of speech, and artistic expression, and defiantly performs in Belarusian, the forbidden language of their homeland. In their hands, King Lear is shockingly immediate, by turns an effervescently funny and savage portrayal of power and its corruption.
The show begins by highlighting the systematic degradation of the young by their elders: in dividing up his kingdom, Lear (Aleh Sidorchyk) pours handfuls of dirt from a battered trunk into the outstretched skirts of his two eldest daughters, making them appear incestuously pregnant with the land itself as they clasp their expanded bellies upon receiving their rewards. After their respective sexual and patriotic musical numbers extolling Lear as the father of the nation to gain his favor, Cordelia’s brash irreverence comes as a blast of welcome air for which her father brutally batters her to the ground. Subsequently, we see Edmund (Kiryl Kanstantsinau) forced to wait on his own imperious wheelchair-bound father, who expects his son to catch the chaotic arcs of his urine in a bedpan and then callously uses his head as a towel to clean his lap afterwards. Such monstrous misuses of power by those on top lead us in the audience, perhaps somewhat to our surprise, to sympathize initially with characters frequently demonized as villainous. (Edgar, by contrast, is portrayed as a partying wastrel before his exile and transformation into Poor Tom.) At the same time, we witness the horror of those once traumatized by servility becoming monstrous in their own experiences of power and the rush it brings: Goneril and Regan quickly trade their simple folk dresses for glamorous gowns and fur coats, ultimately snarling and snapping at one another over the country’s spoils.
Power and humanity alike are ultimately stripped to their bare essentials here: Lear himself is neither loved nor feared in this production; rather, all but Cordelia (Victoria Biran) and the musical Fool (Elias Faingersh) kiss and bow down to the heavy steel gauntlet he brandishes on his right hand throughout the play. Until, that is, the rebels strip it from him in prison and mockingly use it as a puppet: the symbol of might exposed for the hollow prop it actually is. When a terrified Edgar (Siarhei Kvachonak) decides to disguise himself as a madman, he strips down to stained underwear and smears himself liberally with excrement to become Poor Tom. During the storm, Lear, Kent, and the Fool all strip as well to hide with him under a tarpaulin on a wet and shit-slicked stage (the audience is warned in advance of the liberal use of peanut butter as a prop in the show in the case of allergies, but the scene is no less effective).
Fittingly for a company on tour in exile, the Belarus Free Theatre evokes maximum effects from minimal sets: a trunk full of dirt becomes the country to be divided; that same trunk filled with empty mugs then becomes Lear’s hundred knights. Water shaken vigorously by the cast on a blue tarpaulin becomes the storm that drenches the King in his rage; later, a red tarpaulin borne onstage by the cast singing a military anthem becomes the play’s violent battlefield and its bloody aftermath.
The production deliberately upends many traditional expectations: Lear is relatively young and vigorous (shedding the unsteady crawl and long white wig under which he initially totters in his first entrance), even strong enough to spin in place while Goneril and Regan cling to his neck. This king’s claim to being “more sinned against than sinning” is deeply problematic: rather, Goneril and Regan appear here as having learned how to wield power all too well from their tyrannical parent. Meanwhile, Cordelia is as harsh as her sisters, callous and defiant even in the reconciliation scene, suggesting that some pasts simply cannot be forgiven. Gloucester is a demanding bureaucrat in the style of his master; both he and Kent are presented as disabled while serving at Lear’s court, though Kent leaves the wheeled cart in which he’s been kneeling when he disguises himself as Caius. Rising from his knees in exile is a stunning literal depiction of revolutionary action requiring standing on one’s own two feet.
Almost all of the characters, including Edgar and Kent, end up brutally dead at this production’s end: the show closes with a final song to the audience comprised of key lines from the play and the chorus “Good God!” as the final spotlight focuses on the empty gauntlet downstage center. Distilled, energized and relentlessly interrogatory, this Lear becomes a formidable experience indeed: we are left to confront our own reactions to power and the dangerous implications of silence.
Alexandra Bennett is a Chicago-based actor, dramaturg, and an associate professor of English at Northern Illinois University, where she specializes in Shakespeare, early modern drama, modern British and American drama, and women’s and gender studies. She holds her PhD in English literature from Brandeis University, an MA in English literature from Western University (Canada) and a BA in English and history from Queen’s University (Canada).