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Break the wheel: Love and shadow in Actors from the London Stage’s ‘King Lear’

| Monday, February 11, 2019

Joseph Han | The Observer

The Actors from the London Stage (AFTLS) are a gift from God to Shakespeare scholars and lay audiences alike. Five actors take on the often-extensive casts of each play they produce. Every year, AFTLS comes to Notre Dame for one week each semester to perform one of the Bard’s well-known works. This time, AFTLS came to campus to perform “King Lear.” In general, their staging of tragedies has been lacking, while their comedies pack the rows and reach heretofore unmatched heights of theatrical excellence. Yet, “King Lear” was without a doubt one of the strongest performances in recent memory by an AFTLS team.

“King Lear” follows a series unfortunate events and failings that arise after an elderly King Lear attempts to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. When the youngest, most favored, daughter Cordelia will not pander to her father she is banished from the kingdom. A game of power, lust and riches ensues, and Lear’s mental state devolves into madness. In true tragic fashion, the stage is transformed into a graveyard by the conclusion of the play and the two remaining members of the court are left to rule the ruins.

It is difficult to pinpoint standout performances in such a strong cast, but the engines of the show were largely Ffion Jolly as the Fool and Fred Lancaster as Edmund. The other three actors were, of course, brilliant, but Jolly and Lancaster’s performances plumbed depths which it did not seem the others had access. Jolly’s Fool shadowed and foreshadowed Lear, played by Tricia Kelly. In one particularly poignant moment, Jolly removes Kelly’s hat, upon which is written “King,” and replaces it with one marked “Fool.” She takes Lear’s scepter and winds her words in a semi-prophetic lyric that further suggests the inversion implied by the switching of the hats. Jolly’s performance was rich and well-timed, playing the comedy with the oracular nature of her jokes. The Fool in this “King Lear” played quite like AFTLS’s Puck in their 2016 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Both characters had a nearly preternatural sense of the action that almost attained a meta-theatrical sensibility. The Fool guided, protected and soothed Lear during his descent into madness, at which terminal point the Fool disappeared, leaving her hat on the downstage border of the world drawn in salt.

Fred Lancaster’s command of character and physicality was truly unrivaled on the stage. This may be due to his wildly varied casting, but nevertheless Edmund was easily the most powerful character on the stage. No one else commanded soliloquized silence, chess-like planning or sheer confidence quite like he did. As the seemingly standard Shakespeare villain, that is the least-loved child with a penchant for cunning and conniving, Edmund seemed to have little room to grow. This was not the case. Lancaster’s Edmund was textured with longing if tainted with revenge. If the audience did not know any better they might have been on his side right up until he betrayed his father, Gloucester, to Cornwall.

The topicality of “King Lear” is alive and well today. Its concerns with political upheaval and the corruption of those in power and the violence which they are willing to perpetrate situate it at the heart of literary-political discourse. Lear says twice at the beginning: “Nothing will come of nothing.” He means that nothing can be gained without trying, but in the second iteration what is said sounds more like an expression of hopelessness. When Lear, Kent and Edmund invoke the “wheel,” the truth is clear: the machinations of corruption and power are ceaseless and just as Lear could not slow his madness, he could not stop the disintegration of his kingdom once he started it. A crown is placed on the Fool’s hat and Lear begs forgiveness: “Forget and forgive: I am old and foolish.”

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