King Lear

By William Shakespeare
Directed Maureen Shea
The Company of Women, reaident at Goucher College summer-fall 1996
"Lear" performance at Wellesley College

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

If The Company of Women's "King Lear" is kind of contemporary test case for whether it is possible for women to play Shakespeare's tragic heroes, then on the basis of Kristin Linklater's performance of the title character, the experiment is a success. Linklater is well known for her teaching of vocal technique, and the author of what is probably the most respected text in the field, "Freeing the Natural Voice", is co-founder of the Company, along with psychologist Carol Gilligan. Linklater is a convincing, and convincingly male, Lear, the kingly father of daughters. Her Lear is irascible, irrational, vainglorious, possibly incestuous-- but still, more sinned against than sinning. This is a Lear whose foolishness is laughable, whose rage is terrible, whose sexual obsession is creepy, and whose physical frailty is the remains of a once daunting strength -- a bully brought low, and as good a Lear as I have ever seen.

I would hazard a guess that Linklater has wanted to play Lear since the first time she read or saw the tragedy. Every phrase in her performance has a depth of feeling, a subtlety of thought, that is earnest of a lifetime of study and practice. Linklater's voice is in the baritone range, with occasional tenor and bass notes. Her body places Lear in the androgyny of old age. Many of Linklater's line readings, and some of her physicalizations, will live in my memory as defining interpretations of that particular moment.

This performance legitimates the whole cross-gender project, and I would urge arts councils and patrons of education to pour money and resources into The Company of Women's training program ---a worthy project that pushes at the boundaries of all that we think we know about the actor's art, its successes a triumph of the human spirit over its social incarnations.

For most of the history of the theatre, actresses were prostitutes. Hired on the basis of their looks, they were paid next to nothing for their performances because they were expected to use their on stage time as an advertising showcase for their real profession. "Trousers" roles for women were not, as female roles had been for the boy actors, primarily an artistic challenge, but an opportunity for the performer to show off her shapely legs. By the nineteenth century some few women actors had managed to assert their independence if not their respectability, and gained the artistic rights to some male roles, particularly in Shakespeare. When Charlotte Cushing played Romeo to her sister's Juliet, or the aging Sarah Bernhart broke long-run records as Hamlet, their performances were reviewed as interpretations, not as impersonations or stunts. Still, the tradition of the stage as a realm in which beautiful women perform an idealized femininity to please male audiences is far from dead. Actresses must feel some danger when undertaking roles that require them to be ugly, angry, mannish, willful or warlike. The more successful they are in such roles, the less likely they are to be cast in the female parts that make up the majority of the repertoire.

One can only admire the rigor with which The Company of Women has rejected the pleasing and feminine. On the other hand, if the Company is measured at this point by its ability to perform Shakespeare's "Tragedy of King Lear", and not just illuminate it with an occasional lightning flash, this production must be judged a failure, and on a truly spectacular scale. I think there is more gawd-awful, over-the-top, in-your-face bad acting in this Lear's three hours than I have ever seen in my life before. With Hamlet, I must say that some of the performers "so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature's journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably."

Instead of taking the easiest way, and contriving a conservative production that would build a consistent material world to support the central metaphor, stylizing gender behavior and concealing dainty physiques with bulky warrior garb and perhaps a beard, Director Maureen Shea has opted for a wham-bang Eurotrash revisionist "Lear". Vanessa James' setting is fine: a sky backdrop, a simple throne, a series of five foot brass rings moved into position to form abstract locations and frame the action. But Kiki Smith's costumes! Lear him/herself is permitted to wear something resembling a crown at the opening, and a garment that, although hardly royal, is at least a kind of robe. Gloucester, too has the dignity of a floor length covering, albeit with an African motif, and Fran Bennett's performance in the role was eloquent, dignified and direct. I missed the undercurrents in Gloucester's relationship to his bastard son Edmund -- but it is amazing that classical Gloucester can relate to the jazzed-up younger generation at all. Edmund is a lounge lizard in a purplish padded-shoulder jacket, black leather pants and a skinny black necktie. Albany wears a salmon-colored sports coat and a fluffy bow tie, looking for all the world like a warm-up preacher for Jimmy Swaggart. Patrice Johnson's Regan clues us in to the Lear family disfunction by appearing at the opening court ceremony in two-inch blood red fingernails and a skintight micro-dress so blatant that any sane patriach would order her to go back to her room and put on something decent, and she delivers her declaration of daughterly affection as a hooker's come-on. Adriana Inchaustegui's Goneril, "suitably businesslike businesslike in a cream colored California pants ensemble, gives Regan's effusions an eye-rolling "puh-lease". Cornwall, a slip of a boy rather than a hulking brute, is all sullen sneers and nervous starts. Oswald is a periwigged pansy in eighteenth century livery, flouncing and fluttering a handkerchief. The medievally-gowned Cordelia of Lisa-Renee Whitfield maintains a calm in the midst of all the scenery chewing that begins to resemble catatonia, while the fool is played by thirteen year old in a modern girlchild's dress who cannot make her lines audible, let alone expressive.

If these outrageous notions had worked, what a joy it would be to be in the audience! For me at least, there is no thrill quite so keen as watching great actors skate on the edge of outrageous truth, defying the audience to disbelieve-- unless it is watching actors discover where the edge is, in free and daring rehearsal. But on the other hand, what torture it is to watch a talented troupe topple over that edge and fall into embarrassment. The scene where Gloucester's eyes are gouged out...! Besides Linklater's and Bennett's there are other fine performances. Significantly, those performers are generally older, and in traditional rather than revisionist costume. Elizabeth Ingram is a staunch Kent whose loyalty is a compass in unknown emotional territory; Paula Langton a soft-edged sympathetic Edgar, pathetic rather than terrifying as Poor Mad Tom in the storm. The scenes with these actors were powerful and moving. Melinda Lopez's Edmund gains stature with a weapon in hand, and fights and dies effectively. Once Diane Beckett's Albany changes costume into something dignified and warlike, the actor's radiant presence and commanding voice pull the final scenes into tragic focus, and Lear's beautifully simple dying lines are framed to penetrate the heart.

In spite of the rough patches, I'm glad I saw this "Lear"; and I would encourage any theatre-goers interested in actors' technique and experimental practice to see "The Company of Women" whenever the Company's touring schedule gives them an opportunity.