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Flash Review 1, 11-1: The Choreography's the Thing
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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