Review: Lear, choreographed by John Scott and starring Valda Setterfield, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College Dublin (22 October)
Guest post by Katherine Hennessey, Visiting Fellow, Moore Institute, NUI Galway
I’ve overdosed on Shakespeare recently, I confess. As a research fellow with the Global Shakespeare programme at the University of Warwick and Queen Mary University of London, during a period that spanned two commemorative years (the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, and the quadricentenary of his death in 2016), I’ve binged. I’ve gorged. If plays, films, re-writings, adaptations, parodies, books, articles, blog postings, and the ‘Shakespeare vs. Dr. Seuss’ epic rap battle were grams of trans fat, then in early 2014 I was Cassius—and now I’m Falstaff. Or Nell.
It started innocently enough, with a production of Two Gents at the RSC in August 2014. For a few months afterwards I continued to function like a normal human being. But then things began to spiral out of control.
Sigh. It’s the age-old story: you watch a Romeo and Juliet or two, a Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps a Richard II. Gradually you come to learn that the Globe offers £5 groundling tickets… that the BBC archives Shakespeare films on Box of Broadcasts… that there’s a troupe out there doing a history play with an all-female cast, or a gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew, or that Ninagawa is producing Hamlet in Japanese at the Barbican. Before you know it you’ve seen seven Macbeths, six Othellos in four different languages, five different stagings—God help you—of Titus Andronicus. You just can’t help yourself. You see Shakespeare everywhere.
You begin to cackle defiantly in the face of marathon productions. Spend an entire gloriously sunny Saturday cooped up in the Rose Theatre in Kingston binge-watching Trevor Nunn’s Wars of the Roses? Who wouldn’t?!? Six-plus hours of DruidShakespeare? Bring it, Garry Hynes. BRING. IT.
And then, every so often, you find yourself at a production that’s so balanced, so evocative, so crystalline in its clarity that it rises above the out-of-joint chaos, above the jumbled fragments of memory of the other Shakespeare performances that you’ve seen.
For me, the contemporary dance production of Lear by John Scott and Valda Setterfield, performed at Trinity College Dublin’s black box theatre, was the dramatic equivalent of a glass of ice-cold spring water on a sweltering summer day. (To see an interview with Scott and to see the dancers in action, click here.)
Credit for this belongs in equal measure to the 82-year-old Setterfield’s grace, command, and fragility in the title role, to the hauntingly expressive ensemble work that Scott choreographed for her and her supporting cast, and—perhaps above all—to their radical re-invention of Shakespeare’s text and characters, and their jettisoning of almost all of his language in favor of their own, both verbal and kinetic. I’ve seen numerous productions of Lear over the past two years, but they’ve all been riffs on a core theme, to which this Lear provided an utterly refreshing contrast.
Setterfield plays the king as a male character, while his daughters are played by a trio of male dancers, Mufutau Yusuf, Ryan O’Neill, and Kevin Coquelard, as Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia respectively (the trio also play the Fool). Lear radically alters its source text, a fact which the set itself advertises from the outset, its back wall covered with sheets of white paper bearing fragments of Shakespeare’s lines: ‘kingdom,’ ‘a poor, bare, forked animal,’ ‘my wits begin to turn,’ ‘down from the waist they are centaurs’. Initial sequences of movement, in which the male dancers pace, then race, across the stage, repeating single but significant words from the text (like ‘Father’, ‘legacy’, ‘condition’, ‘scanted’) suggest a fierce sibling rivalry.
The first scene in which extended Shakespearean dialogue is spoken—beginning from Lear’s ‘Give me the map there,’ referring to what looks like a modern residential zoning plan hanging from the rear wall—continues only to Cordelia’s ‘So young, my lord, and true.’ At which point, Coquelard breaks character, or invents a new Cordelia, retorting in a mixture of English and his native French, ‘You want a translation? You are stupid. Silly, stupid Lear. I said already that I love you as is right fit. What more do you want from me?’ As the argument escalates, Coquelard speaks heatedly in franglais, expressing his intention to leave the situation (the argument with Lear? the production of Lear?) and return to his beloved France; he climbs up to a catwalk and storms out a side exit, singing an Edith Piaf tune and strutting in comic defiance.
The production provides abbreviated highlights from Shakespeare’s text, interspersed like the first with increasingly poignant dialogue in contemporary English. Perched on an armchair that doubles as a throne, Setterfield answers a series of telephone calls, of which we hear only her side of the conversation, in character as an elderly father pleading with his child to come visit. ‘It’s been so long since we’ve seen you. We all miss you. The dog misses you.’ The calls involve a series of increasingly urgent requests for help: the local pharmacist has mixed up the elderly mother’s prescriptions; the boiler has broken and water is pouring down the stairs, leaving the father unable to reach the mother’s medication.
These pleas are later cruelly mocked by Goneril and Regan, who grow increasingly resentful of the burden of responding to their elderly father’s requests. O’Neill at one point provides a litany of increasingly impatient conversations with his elderly parent: ‘Did you lose your glasses again? All the food in your refrigerator is past its expiration date. Are the stairs getting too much for you these days? Have you taken your medication? I’ve heard about a nice retirement home near here. You left the front door open again…’ And at one point his Regan and Yusuf’s Goneril dance menacing circles around a weeping, cowering Lear.
Setterfield portrays a ruler whose frailty and advanced age are much more evident than his/her tendency, clearly delineated in Shakespeare’s text, to bully and domineer. This production finesses Lear’s obvious missteps and misjudgments by excising most instances of them, replacing them with the haunting one-sided telephone conversations, and with a contrite Regan’s agonizing communication of a doctor’s death-knell diagnosis: ‘He says you can never come home.’
Coquelard’s Cordelia eventually redeems herself for her earlier outburst by a series of tender gestures of care for Lear towards the conclusion. And like her sisters, she dances circles around her father, but rather in the joyful manner of a child shouting ‘Watch me, Daddy!’, basking in parental attention and affection, heedless of Lear’s increasing concern that she is running too fast and will fall (a reasonable fear, it seemed to me, given Coquelard’s incredibly swift pace around a floor strewn haphazardly with sheets of paper). Eventually she collapses, exhausted, and Setterfield’s Lear faces her beloved daughter’s death with a heartwrenchingly dignified resignation.
Scott and Setterfield link their Lear to the tender spectacle of elderly parents, pining for a visit from their indifferent or otherwise-occupied children, tapping into the deep vein of compassion that animates Shakespeare’s play. One of the most moving aspects of Shakespeare’s Lear, after all, is that after suffering abject loss and despair and the chastisement of Mother Nature, he comes to empathise with the ‘poor naked wretches’ bereft of warmth and shelter in his kingdom, summing up his failings as a ruler with devastating understatement: ‘O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this.’ Scott’s and Setterfield’s portrayal of Lear elicits a deep compassion and concern for the aging, the frail, the lonely, for those whose minds are deteriorating, their memories fading. It prompts us to ask, ‘Have I taken sufficient care of this?’ And the emotional impact of the dancers’ movements and their words will remain with me long after the memories of many other Year of Shakespeare King Lears fade.
Guest post – Katherine Hennessey is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Moore Institute at NUI Galway. She co-convened, with Clair Wills and Fintan O’Toole, the Ireland and Shakespeare symposium at Princeton in March 2016 and is the author of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula (Palgrave 2017). From January 2017 she will be an assistant professor in the English department at the American University of Kuwait.