Saturday, January 23, 2016

Musical Explanations 1/23/16: King Lear

Hamlet and Othello were just the dress rehearsals. The real show came during those 14 months between 1605 and 1606 when Shakespeare made the climax and central trilogy of his entire output: King Lear, Macb*th, and Antony and Cleopatra. Among the three Shakespeare monster pieces, King Lear is simply a better play than either Hamlet or Othello. It has far fewer dry passages, and in place of a single character (or two) though which the entire play filters, it has a dozen characters of roughly equal importance, any one of which is more interesting than any of Hamlet or Othello's supporting players. Hamlet ends in a twenty minute fencing match gone awry, Lear ends with two hours of apocalyptic war. Nobody with a brain would think to call Hamlet anything but a towering work, but even at Hamlet's most profound, funniest, most entertaining, Lear is there to best Hamlet every time. So if monsterpieces are your cup of tea, why is Hamlet everybody's favorite play when Lear is not just better, but bigger?

You may like other Shakespeare better (I generally prefer the comedies and histories), but these three: not Hamlet, not Romeo and Juliet, not Othello, not Richard III, not Midsummer, not the Henriad or the Tempest, are the summit of literary art. Never before and never again was Shakespeare so overwhelming, so poetic, so sublime, so human, so expressive, so musical.
Music, even moreso than drama and cinema, has the great advantage (or disadvantage) of vividness. It is an artform in which the practitioner sinks or swims: it is nothing if it does not affect you at the most visceral possible level. If music does not shake you in your intestines, it's not great music, and it's probably not even good. It has to haunt your dreams, or nothing worth.

There's something almost mystical about the fact that in 1605, the very year King Lear was premiered, was the same year that Miguel de Cervantes released what we generally now think of as the first novel: Don Quixote. What does it say about the power of the novel that many people still think that the greatest novel was the first? About ten years ago, a Norwegian magazine polled 100 of the world's greatest authors from fifty-four countries. The question: what are the world's greatest books. Among the polled were Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Dorris Lessing, John Irving, Seamus Heaney, Carlos Fuentes, and Nadine Gordimer. The polled were the heavyweights among heavyweights, and not only did Don Quixote come out on top, but Don Quixote got 50% more votes than the next book.

In this slightly mystical sense, King Lear is not only the summit of Shakespeare or British Literature or even World Drama. It is the very summit of Oral Literature. After King Lear, literature became so complicated that it could only be fit on a page. And since 1605, we hear literature spoken less and less and our bodily connection to literature has gradually disappeared. We ow think of literary art as something incorporeal, taking place entirely in our minds and felt nowhere else within ourselves. Perhaps consequently, literature seems to have meant less and less to us. In three-hundred years, the importance of literature itself might be said to have been supplanted by Cinema and TV.

Seeing it again, this is, by some distance, the best production of Shakespeare's King Lear I've ever seen or heard. Better even than the Kozintsev movie. I could have done with more comedy in this production (though Ian McKellen is very funny in the later acts), but this is the sole production I've seen that comes within striking distance of capturing its thousands upon thousands of nuances. Trevor Nunn is, quite simply, a million miles more sophisticated than any Shakespeare director whose work I've ever seen. I saw his production of Hamlet at the Old Vic when I lived in London in 2004, and whether it's Lear or Macb*th or Twelfth Night, the quality of his Shakespeare movies speak for themselves. As Lear, Ian McKellen is so far beyond the staginess of Olivier and the stodginess of 90-year-old John Gielgud (some actors become too old even for Lear) that as far as I'm concerned, there's no other performer who understands the role nearly so well. Regan and Goneril are no longer an indistinguishable female version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in this production, it becomes impossible to confuse their diametrically opposite approaches to evil that Shakespeare clearly intended. Edgar, an almost incomprehensible role in the hands of most actors, has such a clearly solid moral sense that his self-debasement almost makes sense here, as does the quickness with which both Edgar and Gloucester swallow the mental poison of Edmund, because in this production, neither of them quite believes Edmund, but Edmund commits to his actions with such manic alacrity that he seems almost clinically insane. You can't argue with that kind of crazy, and before either of his family members know what's happened, Edmund's turned the wheels of fate against them.

Above all else which Trevor Nunn brings to Shakespeare, he manages as no other director can to find a moral center in Shakespeare. The Hamlet of Act V, so clearly changed in the text from the rest of the play, became something truly miraculous onstage - a fully developed human being who cleansed himself from the crisis of his soul, and therefore was ready for his fate, whatever may be. The Edgar of this production, so clearly full of kindness, becomes a model not only of self-abasement but of tolerance and mercy. The difference between the King of France and Duke of Burgundy is memorable with just two minutes to make its impression: Burgundy is a playboy whom Cordelia clearly falls for and prefers, while France is a much plainer guy and doesn't seem as though he cuts much of a figure as a General or as a King at Court. I can't think of a single characterization in this production that isn't deserving of special mention: the Fool (whose exit from the play finally makes sense), Gloucester (an old man too pompous not to be easily manipulated), Kent (whose double characterization is flawless), Cornwall is unbelievably menacing, and hell, even Oswald, the disgustingly sycophantic secondary villain nobody cares about, is memorably loathsome. Like all the greatest Shakespeare plays, the text of King Lear - no doubt somewhat bowdlerized from Shakespeare's original as all his plays are - still has too many holes to make perfect sense, but Trevor Nunn and his cast bring us so much closer than we were before that it's undeniably Shakespeare for the ages.

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