7 July 2007: Shakespeare, King Lear

Hampshire Shakespeare Company, performing on an open stage in the meadow behind the Hartsbrook School, Hadley, Massachusetts. Directed by Sheila Siragusa

The Hampshire Shakespeare Company continues to engage with ambi­tious Shakespearean challenges. Few if any could be more demanding than King Lear. As my companion observed on the way home, you don’t schedule a production of this play without having a competent actor in mind for the title role. I will probably never know if Sheila Siragusa knew that Steve Angel, a local sous chef (as he cheerfully explains in his program biography) was going to try out for the role. I have the feeling, however, that he merely emerged, having performed var­ious roles with the company since 2000. He is too young for the part — not yet fifty, I think, but also too young-looking for it, regardless of his actual age — and, more important, not really up to it emotionally. As one of Lear’s daughters observes, Lear “hath ever but slenderly known himself.” But the actor who plays this old man, old before he is wise (quoth the Fool) has to have a commanding, authoritative inside track on the multiple expressions of this deep self-ignorance. Steve Angel does not have that kind of command over what may be argued to be one of the most difficult characters for an actor to play in all of dramatic liter­ature.

What he does have is a competent sense of how to impose coherence and con­tin­uity on so difficult a role. What he lacks in profundity of conception he compen­sated for by playing a man who is constantly surprised and even amazed by the way adversity has of constantly undermining or reversing his expectations. His applecart is so constantly being upset that perplexity soon becomes almost rout­ine. We do not believe him when he expresses his fear that the combination of human perfidy and hostile event may drive him mad, but we are nevertheless willing to pay attention to what happens to him. As Edgar (I think it is) says, late in the play, we cannot say something is the worst that can happen as long as we remain alive to experience something else. What does happen to Lear exceeds all expectation, and Shakespeare’s story is so definitive of tragic finality that it ends up making Lear mad anyway. We didn’t know it would make this Lear mad, but it did. And when he comes in, through the audience, with the dead Cordelia in his arms, shouting “Howl! Howl!” repeatedly, in the loudest voice the actor uses in the entire play, the effect is just as awful and heartrending as it would have been if an actor far more competent than Steve Angel had been playing the role. From this point to the end of the play, when Kent picks up the body of Cordelia and carries it off, closely followed by a plain bier born by six characters carrying the dead king away, the performance had risen to embrace a new, authentic life of its own, achieving a persistent tone of bleak, uncompromising misery that captured the real Shakespearean tragic effect of appalling, unmitigated loss. We had been waiting, hoping this would happen at some point. At the last, it did.

The credit for this goes to Sheila Siragusa, who proved her worth to the Hamp­shire Shakespeare Company, most especially in this final, long scene, but who also must be credited with imposing a steady discipline and clarity of action, pace, and tempo that, all told, constitutes quite an achievement for a company composed largely of untrained amateurs, except for a few graduates or current students of local theatre programs. The Kent, Jeremy Browne, was especially competent, and Fred Piel, the Gloucester, gained in credibility and conviction as the evening went on. Walter Carroll, familiar to Valley audiences as the host of afternoon classical music on the local NPR station, WFCR, and a veteran of not a few Hampshire Shakespeare productions, was disappointingly bland and sub­dued as the Fool. Eliza Green-Smith did what she could with the role of Edgar, made into a female character for this production — unaccountably so, in my opinion, since the liabilities were more than whatever could be gained from giving an opportunity to another female actor, seemingly to add to the presence of the three daughters of Lear — who, however, stand in fundamental contrast to Gloucester’s two sons; and, as the play went on, one wondered how the mortal battle between Edmund and Edgar could be arranged to make a sisterly Edgar a victor — it was almost embarrassing when Edgar dispatched Edmund immed­iate­ly after the fight began, with a dagger thrust into his mid-section. But the Edmund, George Olesky, was a personable, conniving villain, by and large, though Siragusa had him make more than seemed appropriate of his solo addresses to the audience (“Shall I have one of the sisters? Which one? Or should I have both? Or neither?” became a guessing game for the audience, who felt uncomfortably called on to reply to these prompts, and a few did so, under their breaths; more control and restraint were called for here).

A few words about costuming and staging. Siragusa decided to set the play against the background of the Great Depression in America, when devil-may-care prosperity suddenly morphed into grinding, hopeless debt and poverty. Costumes were late 1920s vintage, some handsome, some just awkward or non-descriptive; flapper dresses, formal evening wear for the Act I scene in which Lear divides his kingdom. Progression to tatters thereafter. Music, which played for thirty minutes or so before the play began, and at selected points thereafter, was a combination of Appalachian and other folk songs of the depression and big-band, muted trumpet dance music. The idea finally didn’t work very well, I thought. We all know that periodising Shakespeare merely imposes a metaphor that serves as a running comment on the action and themes of the play; but fin­ally this one seemed only superficially related. The opening scene, introducing the Gloucester – Edmund – Edgar sub-plot, was played on the main, unit set; the next scene, in which Lear gives away his kingdom, banishes Kent, and deprives Cordelia of her patrimony, was awkwardly played well off to the left of the audience, at a banqueting table. The actors could not be heard so well as when they had the unit set to act as a sounding board for their voices, and much of the audience had to strain necks and peer around rows of fellow audience members to pay attention to this all-important first scene. It would have been better to stage it all on the central stage. And there were other details of staging, attempts at symbolism, that seemed awkward or remain mysterious.

All the same, this first of two visits to the Hampshire Shakespeare Company this summer was a pleasant, thought-producing experience. The Comedy of Errors, about to open, promises a varied encore.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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