by Sanne Verhoef
On Saturday evening September 1, around 25 alumni found their way to the Shakespeare Theatre in Diever to enjoy a performance of King Lear, and perhaps even more importantly, an introduction to the play by our very own Hans Jansen. Luckily the weather turned out to be good, because the theatre is outside, which some people (meaning myself) hadn’t properly realised when enthusiastically accepting the invitation at the beginning of the year. The email with further information, including the advice to bring along blankets and raincoats, came after the weather had changed from tropically hot to a normal Dutch summer, and I was a bit worried. This worry turned out to be unjustified though, as the skies were clear and the only rain fell on stage, on poor King Lear after he lost his mind and was wandering around outside.
The introduction by Hans was definitely useful. He explained the plot of the play (that same morning in the train I had to ask my friend which play we were going to see again, so you can’t say that I came very prepared) and drew some interesting parallels with the present. Who knew it would be very apt to compare Donald Trump with Lear, with Mark Rutte acting as the jester? Hans also explained the rather unexpected setting of the play: a circus, with Lear as the ringmaster and his three daughters as trapeze artists. Without this introduction I think the first few minutes of the play would have been quite bewildering.
It sounds weird, setting a very serious and grave play (in which all but three characters have died by the end) in a circus, which is quite the opposite of serious. But somehow it works very well. Throughout the play there were a lot of references to the circus and clever small jokes, like Lear handing his daughters parts of a huge cake when dividing his country between them, and Kent (disguised as a Pierrot) fighting with a sword made out of one of those balloons that are usually turned into animals. Some scenes were even slapstick-like, for example when a servant had to climb a stepladder to put a letter in a mailbox held by a man on stilts, and when the noose turned out to be too high when they tried to hang the jester, played by a little person, and one of the executioners had to get down on hands and knees so the jester could stand on top of him.
Setting the play in a circus provided comic relief to the play and at some moments almost turned it into a comedy, but the sadness of the tragedy was also still there, especially at the final scene when Lear is holding his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms. This tricky famous scene, in which the old Lear needs to carry his daughter onto stage, was solved in a very clever manner by the way, by introducing a younger Cordelia that appeared throughout the play whenever Lear remembered her, and was probably quite a bit easier to carry than her grown counterpart.
I enjoyed the play a lot and it made me wonder what Shakespeare himself would have thought if he had been able to see this interpretation of one of his darkest plays, which despite it being set in something as unlikely as a circus, is still very recognisable as his play. Unfortunately, the last performance of King Lear in Diever will be over by the time you’re reading this, so you can’t go and see it for yourself, but I can only imagine that next year’s play will be just as good. I’m curious which one that will be!