Right now, humanity is struggling to survive the labor pains of a new society, a new world. We are blown and buffeted with news of violence, misery and inequity on every side. The priorities of our leaders are twisted by greed, and our own sense of morality is constantly tested as long-suppressed symptoms of raceism and ageism crash into the open again. Increasingly caste-like divisions grow between social (financial) classes; splitting communities and shattering families.
In the midst of this storm, the ancient story of Lear as Shakespeare wrote it feels profoundly relevant. The most powerful people during the bulk of the play are the most reprehensible, or they are utterly miserable. Meanwhile, the lower-class characters and servants demonstrate that humans are capable of loyalty, bravery and generosity, as well as the madness and avarice that seems to inundate the nobility. The pawns and puppets rescue the kings and masters.
The play begins with a painful divide between the old King Lear and Cordelia, the youngest and most beloved daughter. Lear demands flattery; Cordelia is unwilling to lie, and Lear sees only rejection and disrespect. So Cordelia is banished, and any one who protests is summarily dismissed. An audience now might feel this division intensely. Many families have found themselves divided by terms like “Boomer”, “Millenial” and “Zoomer”. The young reject the methods of their parents; driven to find a better way just to survive. Many in the older generations do not feel the need for a better way, but they do feel rejection intensely and personally.
Zoomers argue that their grandparents can’t see the inequity of wealth and opportunity because they never experienced the receiving end of oppression. Boomers can’t understand where the anger is coming from, or how their goals and lifestyles can possibly prompt such fury from their descendants. Why would my child not be glad I have this wealth and power to leave to them when I die? This divide is aggravated by children and grandchildren willing to continue to play by old, destructive rules if it will gain them immediate advantage.
Lear asks for love. Goneril, Regan, and the Duke of Cornwall lie, and flatter, and are entirely focused on obtaining the power Lear holds. Having obtained it, they demand more and more, until Lear is left with no one, and nothing – or so the King thinks. But even as Lear howls her rage to the empty heath, the Earl of Gloucester is searching for her with an offer of shelter and comfort. The Fool has not left Lear’s side in spite of the storm and Lear’s own rising madness. Kent, disguised as Caius, stays with them both and sends a letter to Cordelia, asking for aid. Cordelia answers, with aid and an army.
In the midst of an incredibly divisive moral and political atmosphere, we the audience have been forced into isolation by a new and frightening disease that strikes without regard for race, age, power, or wealth. We cannot hug, we cannot fight, we cannot break bread or share a cup. Our only way of reaching out is through electronic means – we are limited to what can be conveyed by ones and zeroes racing down suspended wires. So too, is the cast of Lear in isolation. This is a world where direct contact is dangerous; where physical affection might be deadly. Those characters that remain true to each other throughout the storm and the war find either survival or some redemption. The rest die alone.
Finally, a note on casting and gender: I cast for work ethic, and the ability to handle the language and convey meaning with the layers of language and emotion. I asked my actors to play the character with a gender identity that made sense to them. I am delighted with the result. Lear and Gloucester are both played by powerful women, blurring the clear gender roles that were unequivocal and unavoidable in Shakespeare’s time. A role that might limited by the lense of the 1600s to a somewhat distant and powerful provider is given a lot more depth when the father is played by a woman. Suddenly the expectations of a “father figure” become the expectations of a “parent” without the gender role boundaries. I love the vision Lear as a celtic warrior woman, painted with woad and screaming defiance at her enemies, Albany and Gloucester sprinting in her wake.