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King Lear
Barbican, London

Andrew Haydon
12 October 2006

What is most arresting about the Maly Theatre, St Petersburg's new production of King Lear is quite how matter-of-factly they are prepared to ditch swathes of the text, and move other fragments around, so that what is offered here is as different a play to Shakespeare's King Lear as Nahum Tate's Restoration-era revision of the piece which gave the story a happy ending.

It is a truism to say that the British are notably reverential toward scripts, toward writers. It is perhaps prosaic to recall Schiller's remark that the only country which does not have a contemporary Shakespeare is Britain. It is similarly platitudinous to point out Europe's totally different positioning of the director within theatre's artistic process, far above the writer, as the creator of what they play will say. But all three points are central to grasping director Lev Dodin's production at the Barbican.

Of course, watching plays performed in a foreign language can be problematic. I've seen plenty of foreign language productions before, both with and without surtitling, but this production offers by far the widest gulf between what is being said on stage and the translation supplied to the audience that I have ever seen, because the surtitles offer an eviscerated version of the original Shakespeare, rather than a translation of the contemporary Russian version by Dina Dodina, which is actually being performed. This disjuncture between the words being spoken on stage and the surtitles provided in English was pointed up by the three or four Russian speakers in the audience, seated a few rows back from me, who periodically would all burst into gales of laughter at some apparently brilliant Russian gag, while the English-speaking remainder of the audience gazed blankly on, dividing their attention between surtitle and action, seeing no joke in either. By the time we get to poor Tom being a-cold and Lear railing at the hurricanoes on the blasted heath, we are presented with a choice between reading doggerel and listening to what is, to us, to all intents and purposes, gibberish.

Dodin has unapologetically decided that his King Lear is the story of the divisions in a family, of cycles of abuse, of how an abusive father is brought low by those he abused. This decision has mixed results. The opening scene where Lear demands pledges of love from his daughters is pretty textbook stuff, with the interesting suggestion that when Cordelia is disinherited and her two suitors are informed, there is some apparent romance already afoot between her and Burgundy; so when she is married off to France - here an older, less-beloved suitor, we are offered a vision of further coercion. Elsewhere, Edmond's introductory speech from Act 1 is moved to Act 4 after his father has been blinded, creating a character with rather more motivation for his determined villainy than sheer malice, while his final cry of 'gods, stand up for bastards!' is addressed to his groin as he prepares to make love to Regan or Goneril.

The programme for the production carries a short obituary by Lev Dodin the show's designer and Dodin's long-time collaborator David Borovsky, recalling the director/designer partnership of Declan Donnellan and Nick Omerod. Indeed, there is much about the monochrome set - light, rough-hewn beams against the black walls simultaneously suggesting huge saltaires and Elizabethan half-timbered houses - to recall Cheek By Jowl's austere minimalism and high regard for textured wooden surfaces. Less minimal are the costumes, which alternate between military functionality and a heightened Peter Greenaway-ish 18th century of elaborate dresses, ruffs and male full-frontal nudity.

The upside of all this auteurial intervening is the sense of discovering the play afresh. It is striking, watching this Lear, how traditional British productions of the play are. How much of what passes for textual fidelity, is in fact fidelity to a far more recent tradition of performances. It is disconcerting, then, to see a production which approaches the play in a way that does not even begin to reflect or even acknowledge them. For instance: the Fool in this version, begins seated at a piano, at which he comments on the action by pounding out melodramatic chords, or comic waltzes - by the middle of the second half, the fool has vanished altogether, and only the piano remains, still playing the same ghostly tunes. It is hard to imagine any English director with the guts, or sheer effrontery, to remove Lear's Fool from the final act of an English production of King Lear - and all too easy to imagine the reaction if one were to do so.

So, whether ultimately successful or unsuccessful - and the question itself seems almost irrelevant and facile - this sort of intervention by our European cousins is wholly necessary. They function almost like Lear's Fool - licensed, in our conservative, literary culture, to muck about showing and telling us things about ourselves which do not occur to us, but without ever ultimately disturbing the 'proper' order of things.

Till 14 October 2006

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