Sunday, October 15, 2006

King Lear, Barbican

Recently, having spent much of my youth cultivating acute cultural ignorance, I decided that perhaps Shakespeare and all that kind of thing might actually be interesting after all. Although previous experiences have been a mixed bag, I don’t think you can really go wrong with a good tragedy. And of all Shakespeare’s major tragedies the only one of which I was completely ignorant – of plot, characters and type and magnitude of tragedy to unfold – was King Lear. So for sometime I had been waiting for a fairly traditional, unaffected production with which to gloriously lose my Lear innocence, free from the attentions of English teachers and the like. This production was poorly advertised and I felt very lucky to secure a seat near the front of the stalls at very late notice. So imagine my delight when, taking my seat in the plush and sparsely attended auditorium, I opened the programme to see that the play would be in Russian, with English subtitles.

Now the more savvy of you may be able to tell, at a glance, that a production by the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg will certainly be in Russian, but I did not. I even read an entire article on the director, Lev Dodin, in a newspaper, without realising. But even though it did occur to me as I was waiting in the bar for the play to start, I made the tragically naïve assumption that if a theatre was to host a play in Russian, or indeed in any foreign language, especially a classic of English drama, they might put themselves out enough to actually explain this clearly on such publicity as they bothered to produce.

Paralysed by the imminent start of the play my girlfriend and I were unable to decide to make a quick dash for a refund and after I’d digested my disappointment at sullying my Lear tabla rasa, we decided to try it out and see just how great Shakespeare is in Russian, in a play that was apparently in rehearsal for three years. The first problem was that the subtitles were on a screen high over the stage and our fantastic stalls seats meant that it was either actors or subtitles. No amount of neck straining could bring the two into one viewpoint. On the other hand, of all the plays to watch in a foreign language, Shakespeare’s probably loses the least in comprehensibility, what with being generally unfathomable at the best of times. Even as the script flashed past me in large green letters, with Russian actors enunciating beautifully beneath, I was still hard-pressed to know exactly what was going on.

As for the production, the Russian flavour was evident even to me. The three daughters were in bright, white robes, set against a black stage, with only grey to liven it up. The Fool, dressed as a sort of Marcel Marceau type, spent much of the first act lounging at a bar-room piano, on which he and Lear played Russian ditties. I particularly enjoyed the piano-playing, partly as it gave me respite from trying to read the subtitles. And the Fool was great to watch in any language.

Towards the end of the first act one of the secondary characters, possibly an Edmund or Edgar or someone like that, unexpectedly ripped off all his clothes and skulked in the shadows of the stage, cock swinging like a bell-rope. My girlfriend perked up at this point. “I’m glad we stayed now,” she confided to me. "Oh, its nothing to do with that!" she said as she realised her profligate transparency. In fact this was just a softener, as early in the second act three more of the actors divested themselves of costume and cavorted about in the altogether. Trivia buffs should note that this may well be the only Shakespeare production in history to have stolen an old Young Ones joke – one with a naked Neil and a fortuitously placed flower pot.

In the interval we decided to swap seats for some further back, in the hope that we could watch the play and read the subtitles in one go. Of course life being what it is, we chose seats that still didn’t allow us to combine both, but yet were far enough away to make reading the subtitles a strain. This did not help me follow the action at all. By now I’d had a good read of the programme, which explained that the Russian translator had cut out lots of the more political parts of the play, along with most of the soliloquies, and was playing up the kitchen-sink drama, all fathers and daughters. Even I could tell that this left some very peculiar gaps in the plot, not least the fact that there was no battle with which to bring about Lear’s final tragedy. I was still hoping for a bit more of the Fool, before Lear callously dropped the news that he’d been hanged, without so much as a by-or-leave. As for the finale, it just sort of happened, without there being any real explanation for how or why. I assumed that I must have fallen asleep, but apparently not.