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Flash Review 1, 11-1: The Choreography's
Needcompany Director Smears "Lear," but Sagna Saves the Play
By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier
NEW YORK -- In a discussion of how
the Belgian conceptual theater/dance troupe Needcompany began its adaptation of
Shakespeare's "King Lear," the company's director Jan Lauwers said the following
in an interview with Broadway Online: "When we were confronted with [the play's]
text, we found it to be so cynical and so bleak. So we decided, 'Let's make it
even more dark. Let's fuck up the text.'" Take out the "up" and you have a pretty
fair description of the interpretation Needcompany gave to Shakespeare's tragedy
last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater as part of BAM's
Next Wave Festival.
Lauwers, who has adapted four other
Shakespeare tragedies for the group, approached this play with several ideas in
mind: that it is not a psychological drama; that it is a work more of the artist's
gut than his craftsmanship; that it is about power, death, and nothingness. As
such, Lauwers designed an event that strips away detailed characterizations, the
narrative/linguistic architecture of the play, and the theatrical conventions
(for instance, beginning with pleasing structures that lull us into the story,
even as the story becomes a subversion of structure) that allow for varying interpretations
and finally for the catharsis of a tragic conclusion.
Here's how the stripping-away happens.
The actors speak in Dutch and English. Except for Cordelia (Carlotta Sagna), Lear's
youngest daughter and the play's deeply ambiguous symbol of goodness, who speaks
French. Lear (Tom Jansen) spends most of his time onstage standing on a small
pedestal, and Gloucester (Simon Versnel) sits in a chair through four full acts.
The characters of Kent and the Fool are merged into one (Josse de Pauw). The text
of the play appears on a screen above the stage. Except when they are said by
the extraordinary Jansen, lines are declaimed perfunctorily, or screamed. Performers
come and go throughout the evening, sometimes sprawled on stage-side chairs drinking
Evian, sometimes dancing a bit in a corner. With his fingers ready to pluck out
Gloucester's eyes, Cornwall (Dick Crane) says to the audience, "Trying to do this
next bit in the theatre is a total fucking joke." (He and Regan [Anneke Bonnema]
eat them out instead, then retch.) The fifth act -- the battle between the houses
of Regan and Goneril -- is a horrific orgy of blaring music, machine-gun noise,
and brutal sex. And, during the course of the show, around a third of the audience
leaves (oh wait, that wasn't meant to happen).
Within and around this flattened-out
chaos, a whole different world appears -- a world created by the choreographer,
Sagna. The evening began with the small figure of Tijen Lawton standing in the
shadows, leaning back against the air, arms bent like a wounded bird's. To faraway
music ("my baby does the hanky-panky"), Lawton did the walk of a prehistoric creature,
a puppet, a force of nature; she held one ankle, then recoiled suddenly to look
over her shoulder. The music was eerie in its distance, both guiding and not guiding
her movement. Late in the play, Edgar (the gifted dancer Misha Downey) said of
Lear, "That which makes me bend makes the King bow" -- and began a spare, fluid
circle around the stage, composed of just a few deep-curving steps and a gentle,
courtly, heartbreaking lowering of the head. From time to time, Sagna would come
out of nowhere and -- no other way to put it -- curve time and space around her
body. Hers were small solos of atomic strength.
In the performance's most powerful
moment -- after the seeming betrayal of Lear by Cordelia in Act II -- Lawton,
Sagna, Downey, and Timothy Couchman undulated in place, first in silence, then
to acoustic guitars and gentle high-hat taps. This went on for a long time, and
at first I couldn't see anything in what they were doing. Then suddenly the movement
began to remind me of the motion of sobbing; of trees blown by wind in a dark,
desolate field; of prayers at the Wailing Wall. Soon it became more and more drastic
-- whole bodies rocked as legs stayed stuck to the ground -- until Lawton was
left alone on the stage, head and shoulders bucking in the darkness for what seemed
like several minutes. She'd become a monstrosity.
These danced interludes were the
only resonating chambers in Needcompany's "King Lear." Aside from the performance
of Jansen as Lear -- in which, without help from lighting or staging or anything
else, the nakedness of the King was slowly, tenderly, excruciatingly revealed
(and which was marred only by a crass episode in which Lauwers had him drop his
pants) -- they were the only moments when our hearts were allowed to respond.
There the performance reached something in Shakespeare's play that little else
in it did: namely, that the emptiness Shakespeare leaves us with at the end of
"King Lear" is a far deeper sort of emptiness than the wanton nihilism Lauwers
believes is at the heart of it. It's not just a universal state of being, as he
suggests in his program note. It's the particular emptiness of tragedy, which
-- despite its universal relevance -- is always the tragedy of particular human
beings. What makes Shakespeare's "Lear" so awful -- what makes any great tragic
play so awful -- is that the world in which it takes place is not an abstract,
absolute, universal one, but a human one.
Last night, dancing expressed this
far better than anything else. There's a deep pessimism about the power of drama
in this production; its theatrical resources are, for all their bluster, very
weak. Maybe Lauwers intends it that way. It is often said, as he notes, that this
play is "too huge for the stage" -- that its vision of despair and nothingness
outstrips even the power of the playwright to communicate it -- and showing the
impotence of theatrical resources may be one way to portray that. It's true, Shakespeare's
"Lear" does leave you staring death in the face, with no consolation from the
traditions or conventions or the pleasing structures of this world. But it also
leaves you -- however difficult the vision might be -- recognizing yourself onstage.
Last night, it was not Lauwers's direction but Carlotta Sagna's choreography that
brought this "Lear" to life, and to our lives.
Needcompany's "King Lear" repeats
at BAM Harvey November 2 and 3 at 7:30 pm and November 4 at 3 pm.
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