Time Magazine May 02, 1988

THE TALE OF LEAR Adapted from Shakespeare by Tadashi Suzuki

BY WILLIAM A. HENRY III

Envision a King Lear cut down to 100 minutes, cast only with men --the daughters sporting beards,
the fool a burly fellow in nurse drag--and staged as the fantasies and fuddled memories of a dotard near death.
Not outraged yet? How about a Lear in which the title character is played without age makeup by a 30-year-old?
For which the director is a Japanese staging his first work entirely in English? For which the costumes
are pieced together from antique kimonos, the set is metal gratings and a chair, and Lear spends a long while
stuffed into a laundry cart? Surely this is auteurist direction run riot, the sort of conceptual staging of Shakespeare
that makes theatergoers yearn for the days of the director as traffic cop.

Actually, no.

The Tale of Lear, now touring U.S. regional theaters, focuses its innovations more on the play's psyche
than on the director's. To be sure, sometimes it is merely idiosyncratic. The nonsense sounds,
absurdist gestures and gloomy lighting may have primarily private meaning for Tadashi Suzuki,
48, a leading figure of the international avant-garde, and for the dozen actors from the co-producing ensembles:
StageWest in Springfield, Mass., where The Tale of Lear is to run through May 15;
Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Arena Stage in Washington and Berkeley Repertory Theater in California.
But for the most part, this work sparks audiences to think anew about Shakespeare's original intent.

For Suzuki, Lear is less a king than a man, and the tragedy of Lear is less the loss of political power
than the inevitable crumbling of the mind and body. Although the play was written before the development
of modern medicine, it is, in this version, clearly a play about medical emergencies. In particular,
it suggests that the howling storm from which Lear never recovers can best be understood as an internal event,
perhaps a stroke.

Nurses may object to the image of one of their number Jeffrey Bihr ignoring a patient while reading
what seems to be a novel that tells the story of Lear and cackling at the gruesome bits.
But the scene evokes the actual emotional distance between dying patients and the medical professionals attending them.
If Lear (Tom Hewitt) is tumbled into a laundry cart, many another patient has felt similarly objectified.

This biological emphasis comports comfortably with the plots and subplots about betrayals by children.
Such events do not pale before death; they become even more horrifying, because children are every
parent's attempt at immortality. When sons and daughters assert their wills, they issue the last
reminder of the permanence of the grave. -- W.A.H. III

 

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