Globe to Globe’s Belarusian ‘King Lear’: the Musical

Нічога не выйдзе з нічога

‘Nothing will come of nothing.’

Shakespeare’s King Lear directed by Vladimir Shcherban, produced (?) by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada and performed by Belarus Free Theatre, Globe to Globe, Friday 18th May 2012: Evening

(c) Lonely Planet

Shall I be honest in this review? I don’t know anything about Belarus, other than it was part of the former Soviet Bloc.  I know a Belarusian student, and we’ve often talked about Shakespeare, or about the international experience, but I’ve never really asked her about where she has come from. I could make an excuse that I don’t want to pry, but in reality it’s because I know so little that I don’t know where to start.

Since the Globe to Globe Festival invited the Belarus Free Theatre to participate in its 37 plays in 37 languages project, I know a little bit more.  Before I’d even read beyond the theatre’s name in the festival brochure, I guessed that if the theatre was ‘Free’ then the country probably wasn’t.   According to the Globe:

Belarus Free Theatre was founded in March 2005 by husband and wife team Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, and joined by Vladimir Scherban. Their performances in Belarus are held secretly, in small private apartments, the location of which, due to the risk of persecution, must constantly be changed. Despite suffering every form of intimidation and harassment, BFT continue to produce great theatre that is recognised internationally.

This was all I knew as I stood at the front of the stage in the Yard along with some hardened Groundlings. A skinhead sat on stage, peeling potatoes: Edmund.  Playing with expectations, Edgar, the favoured son, tumbled on smoking a spliff and attempted to snog his male companion.  Gloucester (probably the same age, late twenties or early thirties) rolled on in a wheelchair.  An even more youthful Kent knelt on a wheelie board, like a street beggar, his legs useless. The two young ‘old’ men circled and mocked the young bastard son.  I’ve seen just enough Eastern European theatre to know that everything will be important: a country crippled by war, the youth dispossessed and angry, or spoilt and dissolute.  I make a note to myself of things to note; not only the thematic imagery, but also the small things.  Will that potato be important in the second half? (Yes.) Will Gloucester’s blinding be somehow represented through his glasses? (Sort of…) How will Kent disguise himself and follow Lear if he can’t walk? (Ingenious!)

(c) Stephen Kane

This was a visceral, visual, contemporary, and sickly funny production. Cut to one and a half hours, punctuated by cabaret song and dance pieces, it was King Lear: the Musical!

At the Globe to Globe Intercultural Shakespeare Symposium the next day, Festival Director Tom Bird told how he had asked Belarus Free Theatre to participate in the festival.

‘We don’t do the Classics,’ they said.*

The production was actually directed by Vladimir Shcherban, as he pointed out in a comment on this blog after a generous affirmation of this review!  However, in the flurry of performances, I had got confused and at the time thought it was directed by the company’s co-founder Nikolai Khalezin.  In my imagination, I saw Nikolai turn to his producer wife, Natalia Kaliada, and say, ‘Can you believe it? They really thought that we would be interested in doing Shakespeare!!!’ Then I saw his wife raise her eyebrow ever so slightly and prompt, ‘And you – you said what?’ ‘I said no, of course!’ Natalia’s voice became edged with ice.  ‘You said WHAT?’ she repeated.  ‘We’ve just been invited to an international festival, in the run-up to the Olympics, at a sell-out London venue, and you said we don’t do the Classics!’ In my imagination, which was now running away with itself, she ran to the bookshelf, picked up a Complete Works of Shakespeare in Belarusian, if such a thing exists, and hurled it at her husband’s head, screaming ‘What about the money, you idiot!’

Returning my mind to the lecture theatre, Tom Bird was continuing his narrative. ‘About a month later, I got a letter from the Belarus Free Theatre, saying that they had changed their minds and wondered if there were any plays left.  Well, it just so happened that an Aboriginal company had just had to withdraw. I asked them if they would be interested in taking over King Lear…’

What serendipity, because I can’t think of another play that would have suited them better: a divided country under the control of a backward looking autocrat who doesn’t love his children.  I’m sure they saw a metaphor in that for contemporary Belarus and the government of Alexander Lukashenko…

King Lear, bent double by the years, slowly pushed an old fashioned pram onto the stage.  His court sat diagonally to him, turned out towards the audience.  The three daughters wore traditional folk dress. Then Lear leapt up and revealed himself to be in virile middle aged (although compared to the extreme youth of the rest of the cast, he was, indeed, pretty ancient!).  Striding around the stage in an ankle length black leather coat, a silver gauntlet on one arm, he was no weak old man at the mercy of his harpy daughters.  In fact, he made them stoop to kiss his gauntlet several times during the production, which @Shaksper interprets as a metaphor from hawking, as the huntsman calls them to obedience. He had the enigmatic qualities of a gypsy king. His sycophantic Fool wore a joke-shop bowtie that lit up as he accompanied the action on the piano, and when he mooned the audience he had K. L. tattooed on his buttocks!  In order to get their share of his kingdom, his daughters had to dance for their Daddy (oh-so-Freudian)….  Regan did a rock-chic number, Cordelia parodied both sisters and got a bloody nose for her pains, but it was Goneril who captivated.  Dancing first, she was caught somewhere between little girl and lap dancer.  The land that Lear divided was literally earth, scooped out from the pram and into his daughter’s lifted up skirt, as she knelt, knees akimbo, before him.  As she turned back to face the audience, her belly seemed to have swollen with child, in anticipation of her father’s later curses on her barren womb.  But later, transferred into a cheap plastic tub, roses bloomed in Goneril’s earth alone.

It might have been because I was reading Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, or it may have been the actress, but I couldn’t take my eyes off any scene she was in, as she became the female emotional centre of the production.

Belarus Free Theatre knew how to work its audience.  There were audible groans of delighted disgust when Edgar, transforming himself into Poor Tom, and literally shitting himself with fear, put his hand inside his underpants and smeared his excrement over his body and face.

(c) Stephen Kane

It challenged in other ways, however.  The power struggle between daughters and father was played out visually when Goneril and Regan embraced their father before casting him out. He began to turn, slowly as first, then faster and faster, swinging their bodies outwards, their feet lifting from the ground as they clung on for dear life.

Gloucester, a religious hypocrite, could easily be duped into rejecting his wayward elder son.  Edmund, the moment before he betrayed his brother, appeared to be shooting up – quite out of character.  In fact, he was drawing blood, presenting this and the needle to his father as evidence of Edgar’s attack. When father and son were finally reconciled after his blinding, Edgar hauled his broken father onto his back, then lit up and maliciously blew smoke into his face.  In a bleak irony, they shared the only moment of joyful family companionship in the play as they staggered around the stage together, stoned.

Unable to understand the language, it was the production’s visual effects that repeatedly engaged me.  Kent slipped into his disguise by unfolding his legs from beneath him and suddenly being able to walk.  The King of France, an ancient, bent old man was performed by a young woman.  She reappeared later as France – now a sexy female cabaret singer, singing the battle news to the audience (perhaps suggesting that all this death and suffering was in a day’s entertainment?).  One of the tensest moments was the onstage blinding, in which Goneril and Regan, now dressed in the furs and heels of the nouveau riche, leant over the bound Gloucester and appeared to suck his eyes out.  When they stood up, two orbs of black ink behind his glasses had turned them to a blind man’s shades.  The women opened their mouths slightly and black ink, like blood, edged their lips and discoloured their tongues.

Keren Zaiontz of the University of Roehampton, has reviewed the production for the Year of Shakespeare blog and the Globe to Globe blog.  She argues that Belarus Free Theatre’s ‘Surface halts the production of tragic feeling but it opens the possibility for experimentation with stage signs.’

To an extent I agree, except that I have never thought that King Lear explored the ‘pathos’ of a ‘king without a kingdom’ falling from ‘greatness’ into madness.  In my reading of it, any former greatness lies far outside of the parameters of Shakespeare’s play, or at most, at the edges of Gloucester and Kent’s memories.   Which reminds me, Gloucester’s wheelchair had been nagging at me throughout the production.  Where had I seen it before?  Then the comparison came to me during the second half of the production – intentionally or not, BFT’s Lear was Endgame, as close to Beckett as to Shakespeare, a Theatre of the Absurd…  And that is a place where there is no catharsis in the tragedy.

This is certainly what a fellow groundling, Laura, felt: ‘It was brilliant, yes, but I hated it.  It was so, so bleak.  There was no glimmer of hope anywhere, no moments of tenderness or compassion.’

‘What about Cordelia’s kiss?’ said @Shaksper.  ‘For a moment she came alive and forgave him.’

‘No she didn’t! She killed him with that kiss!  Can’t you see it was her kiss that killed him?’ Laura insisted.

Because Cordelia had been killed onstage, hung by her pearls, her dress coming down to expose her breasts as the guards pulled on her kicking legs, Andrew Dickson, in his otherwise admiring review in the Guardian, concludes that this ‘reduces the impact of this most brutal and shocking of acts, and makes a nonsense of Lear’s entrance with her body’.  Yet, as I said earlier, this is a production that works against expectations and the text.  The reason why we have to see the hanging is because we also have to see Lear, finally broken, curl up into the foetal position at the back of the stage as he lets his daughter be murdered.  Thus, one reading could be that Cordelia’s apparent resurrection was only to take vampiric revenge on the father who rejected her. Another could be that, her father revealed at last as no more than a weak, frail, old man, she  released him from his failure and despair.

What all reviewers and audience agreed on, however, was the ‘formal daring and experimentation’, especially in the magnificent use the company made of plastic tarpaulin…

(c) Stephen Kane

Spread out on the stage, the ousted Lear stood in the middle as buckets of water were thrown at him.  Actors around the edge began to agitate the sheet, swooshing water and sound, louder and louder until a children’s game became a raging representation of the play’s central, elemental storm, the noise and wind spreading beyond the stage and engulfing the audience.  Then Lear was standing on a chair behind it, and the sheet rose up, as if it would ‘drench our steeples, and drown the cocks’.

In the second half, this simple stage trick was used again.  This time the tarpaulin was bright red, cloaking the characters until it totally enclosed them.  The battle took place within, a deep red ball of death, like something from a particularly violent Manga, the punches being thrown from inside at the sheeting horribly magnified in the acoustics of the Globe. Afterwards, Edmund crawled across it, pulling at the limbs that had escaped its covering.  First he found Goneril, but Regan tempted him with a freshly boiled potato, taking us full circle.

Which brings us back to the topic of money and international politics.  At the end of the performance, Natalia climbed onto a bench.

‘We get no subsidy from our government,’ she mocked, and reminded us that the KGB were still at large in Belarus.  Anyone who is old enough to remember the Cold War will know that the KGB are the enemies of freedom and democracy…

And so we threw our coins into their buckets, asking no more questions.  King Lear had convinced us.**

To find out more about the Belarus Free Theatre, see this documentary, made for Al Jazeera’s Witness strand.

* This Eastern European company started out with Sarah Kane.  They premiered with 4.48 Psychosis, which according to their Facebook page, deals with “depression and suicide –– two themes that are taboo in state-controlled Belarusian art.”

** Once again, it’s interesting to note that, ‘banned’ can mean different things in different contexts.  I saw several apparently ‘banned’ films whilst in China in the early 90s, not only on bootleg VCDs, but openly at the local cinema, such as Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine.  My students joked that the government liked to temporarily ban the films of Fifth Generation directors to ensure they won the prizes at big international film festivals….

11 thoughts on “Globe to Globe’s Belarusian ‘King Lear’: the Musical

    • Glad to hear you survived all 37 productions! I’m missing ‘Globe to Globe’ already – although you are doubtless pleased to have a normal life back.
      Will we ever see anything like it again?


      • I can’t imagine any theatre trying to copy the precise format, and even if they did, they could not replicate the Globe space, which was key to the overall experience.

        There’s an interesting story to be told about how the Globe is becoming “sacred ground”: the symbolic centre of the Shakespearean universe. All that board-kissing wasn’t for nothing.


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  2. ” ‘No she didn’t! She killed him with that kiss! Can’t you see it was her kiss that killed him?’ ”

    Took me several reads of this and a reboot of my memory to realise you are quoting Groundling Laura and not offering your own interpretation!

    I won’t be convinced Cordelia killed him with that kiss until I see an autopsy report supporting that conclusion!


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  4. Thank you for interesting and detailed review, but there is one mistake. King Lear was directed by Vladimir Shcherban.


    • Thank you for the correction, Vladimir! And also for your kind words about the review. It was a magnificent production in my opinion. I am often disappointed by ‘King Lear’ on in performance because it is so difficult to translate its strangeness into concrete images on a realist stage. I felt that your production captured for me how ‘King Lear’ looks and feels in my head.


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