Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Fashion, exclusion, & renunciation in King Lear

Review of the new Manchester Royal Exchange production of King Lear
by Brian Bamford

DON WARRINGTON who plays King Lear in the performance at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre says 'The focus {of the play) for me is the idea of madness, obviously, but also I've been thinking about age and whether Lear is content to be aging.  I don't think he is and it's fascinating finding his attitude towards getting older and facing the idea of death.' 

That shows that there are many readings to Shakespeare plays and in the case of King Lear, as Don Warrington says old age and dementia are all aspects of the play.  The play's director, Michael Buffong, has said:  'Counter to that we have some of the younger characters' attitudes towards old age and the idea that they actually need to seize power for themselves from the older generation in order for them to rise seems to be the natural order of things.' 

Besides this interpretation based on age this play evokes the additional complication of racial identity, because the Talawa Theatre Company* that is performing this production wants to say something about the fashionable identity politics of today.   Don Warrington said:  ' made me want to explore the idea of a black presence in England in that time, of which I'm absolutely sure there was historially.'   To justify this he argues that '[t]he reality that black people have lived in, and contributed to, English society for hundreds and hundred of years but have been erased from the history books is only now being gradually uncovered and discussed.' 

These remarks merely show how diverse are the interpretations springing from Shakespeare's work.   But do we need this extra complication to understand King Lear? 

Mr. Buffong argues 'When I read KING LEAR, I instinctively felt it should be set where Shakespeare had originally set it:  in pagan England.' 

The notion of historical exclusion though now fashionable is not new.  In 1942, George Orwell in his essay 'Looking Back on the Spanish War' wrote:

'When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever.  We do not even know their names.'

In contrast to what is said above about old age, dementia and perhaps madness in Lear, another interpretation of the play is that it is about renunciation of power.  As Orwell writes in another of his essays 'Lear,Tolstoy and the Fool' (March 1947):

'Lear renounces his throne but expects everyone to continue treating him as a king.  He does not see that if he surrenders power, other people will take advantage of his weakness:  also that those who flatter him the most grossly, i.e. Regan and Goneril, are exactly the ones who will turn against him.' 

This could well be a message from Niccolò Machiavelli, and it demonstrates how the play can be seen as being about power and its renunciation or about old age and dementia.  Despite these misgivings I have about the participants interpretation of the play, it is well worth trip to central Manchester to see it.
Talawa Theatre Company and its Wikipedia entry describes it thus:
Talawa Theatre Company's Mission Statement: 'Talawa is Britain's primary Black led theatre company. We create outstanding work informed by the wealth and diversity of the Black British experience. We invest in talent, build audiences and inspire dialogue with and within communities across Britain. By doing so we enrich British cultural life.'
The company's mission is to provide opportunities for black directors, writers and actors, to use black culture to enrich British theatre, and to enlarge theatre audiences seeing black work. Talawa's work embraces both literary and participation activities, finding and developing new writers and scripts, workshops for schools, colleges and corporate clients and presenting new work by emerging artists.

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