The speed at which the titular monarch in “King Lear” descends into madness varies greatly between productions. Is Lear entirely cold and collected until he’s pushed to his breaking point by the night he spends in the woods during a storm? Or has he been teetering on the verge of a mental breakdown since long before we first see him onstage?
The Wellesley College Shakespeare Society’s current production of “King Lear,” directed by Brigitte Demelo ’18, leans more towards the latter. Played by Lara Brennan ’18, Lear slips in and out of lucidity throughout the show, wavering between composure and irrationality, delivering his lines with irrationally and disproportionately passionate anger from the very first scene. His descent into, out of and back into madness is jarring.
For the most part, the production remains traditional. The story retained its original setting in Roman Britain. Additionally, the actors wore traditional costume. However, the production also takes significant steps to highlight its own theatricality, frequently inviting the viewer to see the man behind the curtain, so to speak. Wooden swords are used in lieu of more convincing prop swords and the choreography is anything but realistic, but the viewer gets the sense that this is intentional, playing off the theatricality of the story in general.
While it did not always work particularly well from an audience perspective, it is an understandable and thematically relevant way of handling a production where so much of the plot hinges on how far each character will go for the sake of appearances.
The staging is traditionally minimal with one notable twist: over the course of the show, the actors removed the wallpaper and the floor covering on the stage until only the bare wooden walls and floorboards remained, reinforcing the idea that everything in Lear’s world was slowly being stripped away. Whether such a choice is brilliant or crossed the line into gimmicky depends entirely on the viewer.
Personally, I felt that it might have worked better had the bare wooden walls and stage in the Shakespeare House not been so immaculate. Instead of being increasing consistently from beginning to end, the feeling of decay is strongest in the middle of the play. It peaks when just enough of the wallpaper was missing for everything to peel off in a striking manner.
The makeup is minimal, and the actors make little attempts to appear aged, so the older and more senile characters never quite feel like old men losing control of their minds and bodies. That said, what Brennan’s Lear lacks in senility, he makes up for in conviction, wailing and lamenting passionately enough to alarm the viewer into realizing just how unhinged he is. While lines like the one where Lear calls himself a “poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man” do not quite convince, the character is at least retained, albeit in the body of someone younger.
Moving to the rest of the cast, a few performances really stand out. Acadia Weinberg ’20 commands the stage. Meanwhile, the wonderfully evil Edmund hits all the best notes of a classic Disney or Bond villain in the best way.
At once cold and passionate, collected and completely self-obsessed, Weinberg’s Edmund delivers his monologues regally and chillingly. The Fool, as played by Rainier Pearl-Styles ’19, is equally compelling in a much different way. Pearl-Styles makes the Fool whimsical and funny or depressed and sympathetic as needed. When sharing the stage, Pearl-Styles and Brennan play wonderfully off each other and the relationship between their characters is one of the best in the show.
The Society’s production is a traditional take on the Shakespeare classic featuring some hit-or-miss staging choices. Nonetheless, the risks they take, combined with the stellar acting, make for an excellent show. The Shakespeare Society’s “King Lear” will run this Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 18, with evening showtimes at 7 p.m. and a 1 p.m. Saturday matinee. The Saturday matinee is a pay-what-you-can performance. Tickets can be reserved online or in person on the fourth floor of Lulu.