April 6, 2020, by Peter Kirwan
King Lear @ Münchner Kammerspiele (webstream)
Thomas Melle’s 2019 reworking of King Lear picks up on the play’s promise of radical change and generational conflict to offer an engaged, if somewhat depressing, critique of a self-consuming society. Under Stefan Pucher’s direction, and across an unbroken two hours-and-change, Münchner Kammerspiele take the implications of a mediatised world and populist politics to their logical extremes, allowing a family to tear itself apart over its conflicting sense of how to enact real change within the world.
Lear’s (Thomas Schmauser) followers are online in this version; in his dotage, Lear has become a rabble-rousing internet proselytiser, no longer with a hundred knights but with a million subscribers to his internet channel who are riled up by his rants to troll his two youngest daughters Goneril (Julia Windischbauer) and Regan (Gro Swantje Kohlhof). The idea of the family being embattled by unseen, massive forces is a pleasingly contemporary one, reducing the numbers of people onstage but making the threat of Lear’s power – wielded unthinkingly by a man set in his ways but enjoying a new platform – very real.
The pleasure of the adaptation is predominantly in Melle’s script, which I was only able to access in translation. Even filtered in this way, the dense rewriting of the play has a poetry and urgency to it. Everyone in this world is constantly positioning themselves; it is almost as if they have been trained to think, as well and speak, in the soundbites of populist politics and message boards. Edmund (Thomas Hauser) uses his own bastardy as the hook into a recurring series of prophetic slogans (‘Here come…’ as he promises the uprising of the downtrodden classes), yet it’s never quite clear how far the hordes he cajoles into direct action are prepared to join him. But even oldest daughter Cordelia (Jelena Kuljić) falls into it, as she takes to the airwaves (projected onto the screen at the back of the stage) to convince the world that ‘whoever simply swaps the figures, without changing the rules, is playing the old game’. Everyone here wants some form of change (apart from Lear, perhaps), and everyone is trying to convince the people to join them. As such, political discourse itself starts to seem empty, a series of slogans and promises whose actualisation is far less easy.
The gendered politics of these discourses are central to this reworked narrative. Goneril and Regan have been scheming since before the play begins, considering how they are going to use the machinery available to them to enact real change; the older Cordelia, by contrast, seems tired and confrontational, and has no truck with her father’s games. Crowded into the onstage box that dominates the stage for the first half (and with the actors filmed live in uncomfortable close-up by Hannes Francke and Ute Schall), Cordelia finds herself forced out of a box she is only too happy to leave. Lear’s demands hinge around being kept in comfort by his daughters while he continues to have unfettered access to the internet, and his populist discourse is rife with toxic masculinity (that emerges in the language of all the characters, Lear’s misogynist diatribes infecting language itself). Even Gloucester, reimagined here as a middle-aged woman (Wiebke Puls), is clear on the problem, explaining gently to Lear that ‘our words create realities’, and that his use of language damages them all.
But where the play’s protagonists differ is how to challenge this discourse, and here the production treads an unclear line between a feminist reclamation of the text and something more reactionary. On the one hand, Lear’s outmoded style (represented in his flowery jacket and trousers, and in the choices of music to accompany his decline, including The Band’s ‘Such a Night’) is a problem, and one that is repeatedly reinforced. Kent (Samouil Stoyanov), in a pleasingly efficient piece of reworking, becomes The Fool when in disguise, and his role is to violently bolster Lear’s sense of outrage at his white male privilege being challenged. He attacks the female Oswald (Anna Seidel) and reinforces Lear in his ranting, culminating in the brilliant central argument where Regan accuses Lear and Kent of forming ‘one of those men’s alliances’ and Lear, in a tirade, tells the young women that ‘you owe us everything‘. It’s a damning indictment of wounded male pride and fragile masculinity, coupled with an ageist politics that insists that youth needs to defer to the older generation our of gratitude as much as anything else.
But the younger generation are little better. Goneril and Regan are schemers, and insist on the need for violent overthrow. They know what is expected of them and are more than happy to exploit it; in one of the most radical changes to the text, they fake their mutual poisoning at the end, as they know they’ll get away with it because it’s exactly what men expert them to do. The reinforcement of reckless young women taking advantage of privilege and perceptions of weakness is unfortunate, and parts of the production risk acting like a cautionary tale against allowing young women too much leeway, seemingly legitimising Lear’s paranoia (the kinder reading would be that they act like this precisely because Lear’s infectious misogyny has created them as such). These two justify their need to behave the way they do because it is like men: ‘For once we have to do it like them’; ‘There’s no change without violence’, taking power on their own terms; their song (in English, as all the songs, though I couldn’t identify the source) thrashes out a punk roar of defiance ‘Society is such a bore’. At the production’s end, Edgar (Christian Löber) and Kent look down on the dead bodies of Lear and Cordelia and soberly acknowledge that they’re going to have to take over; at this, Goneril and Regan rise behind them and slit their throats, announcing that ‘the worst deeds are negligence’ as their condemnation of the two bystanders, and offering themselves to the audience as a halfway house, using violence to ease the world through to a better future. It’s a message already undermined by their own selfishness, and hardly a promising end.
Aesthetically, the production is (deliberately) muddled, and I found it not entirely sympathetic to the text. The long sequences of live onstage filming are squashed in the livestream (watching video of people watching video is something I struggle with), and while the cramped setting of the opening sequence worked well to suggest the claustrophobic environment of the core family, I found the production’s management of public and private space lacking in coherence, especially in the distinction between sequences of online hectoring, direct address to the audience, and performance within the represented space (by contrast, I remember Yellow Earth’s King Lear of 2006, which bore some similarities to this production, which used its video extremely effectively to navigate between the online world and the physical world). The central box, capped with massive neon writing stating ‘The End’, feels both too fussy and too non-specific, and the production works much better to my mind when the box is removed for the heath scenes. Here, ‘offstage’ actors are often visible at the back, watching action they have no right to be (Gloucester listening to Edgar’s ‘mad’ scenes, or Edmund watching his mother’s blinding), and the collapse of spatial distinctions feels exposing of Lear in his madness.
There’s also just some good silly fun. While Edgar doesn’t make much impact throughout the production, his appearance as Major Tom – flying down from the ceiling in Bowie costume, playing ‘Space Oddity’ on guitar – is a show-stopper, and is nicely built into the dialogue throughout as another series of metaphors around alienation and isolation. The severely compressed final act turns Edmund and Edgar’s ‘battle’ into a parody of destructive masculinity, as Edgar kills Edmund with a massive 2-D sword with a single stab. And the image of Kent and Edgar on the screen playing ‘Such a Night’ while Lear jerks around in a fitful dance is amusing and sad at the same time.
Perhaps the most affecting moment is, surprisingly, Oswald’s death. Riffing on a trope that Hailey Bachrach has recently written about, albeit here in a context which foregrounds women’s agency throughout the production, after Oswald’s death she steps forward for a soliloquy in which she castigates someone – her world? the audience? society? – and demands to be forgotten. ‘Build no monument for the nameless messenger’ she snarls, pointing out that she has withheld her own name during the performance. Oswald’s performance throughout – artificially still, facing forwards and away from people she is delivering messages to, and staying markedly separate from the others on stage – makes her a representation of the faceless masses who are repeatedly referenced throughout, and her insistence on herself as collateral damage, and demand not to be made a part of the narrative, is a striking counter-offer to the central family’s attempts to cement their own legacy and incite revolution on their own terms. It’s an adaptation whose rewritten text will, I think, reward further closer study, in its attempts to navigate the different kinds of agency claimed by those who assert they have the best interests of others at heart.