Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear – 2012 Globe to Globe Festival

In their radically adapted version of King Lear, performed in Belarusian, exiled company Belarus Free Theatre refashions tragedy as burlesque. In place of pathos for a king without a kingdom, the company opts for a variety show where Lear does not fall from greatness but already begins from a place of madness and debauchery.

Lear’s kingdom resembles that of Pere Ubu, from Alfred Jarry’s surrealist satire Ubu Roi, who rules with a toilet brush instead of a scepter. And Lear’s subjects resemble vagabonds and itinerant players – Kent wheels himself around on a piece of scaffolding and the Fool entertains Lear with fast-paced piano music. In order to claim their inheritance, Lear’s daughters do song and dance numbers for their plots of land. They shimmy their hips, get the audience to clap along, and end by giving their father big wet kisses on the lips.

Dirt not only represents a land divided but it signifies the moral condition of a kingdom permeated by filth. Globe to Globe festival audiences witnessed a kingdom populated with symbols from ‘below’; most powerfully, the banished Edgar recreates himself as Poor Tom by disguising himself in his own excrement. Whilst the men roll around in their own filth, the women, Goneril and Regan, are ‘filled’ up by it as a reward for their filial affections. After each daughter does her song and dance, Lear dumps dirt – a symbol of his divested territory – into his daughters’ peasant dresses so they grow round with their father’s prize. He dispenses this dirt from an antique pram which he pushes onto the stage – a prop that will later act as his and Cordelia’s hearse.

When it is Cordelia’s turn to perform her own unique number she ends by mooning her father, and is amazed to discover that no one finds her burlesque funny. Her inability to “heave her heart into her mouth”, which she treats as a moment of comic irony, is lost on Lear. He rewards her with a bloody nose and she is claimed by a frail King of France – a girl in drag with a cane and a vocality akin to that of a mock mechanical voicebox. France is the ‘old man’ not Lear who mocks him and his now banished daughter. Everyone laughs at Cordelia’s misfortune; no one onstage acknowledges that tragedy has been willfully set into motion. It is a tabloid opening that replaces feelings of sorrow and sentimentality with fearless vulgarity.

If there is a tragic soul to be found in Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear then it dances on the surface of song and dance numbers, or on shiny slips and floor length fur coats – fashion which Goneril and Regan acquire after Lear divides his kingdom. Surface halts the production of tragic feeling but it opens the possibility for experimentation with stage signs. This is vividly demonstrated through Lear’s self-destructive wanderings on the heath. The ensemble unfurls a massive blue tarpaulin in front of the audience, and waves it up and down in imitation of a storm. Lear dives into the blue sea from the height of the onstage piano and is assaulted with a bucket of water.

The scene on the heath is powerful precisely because it stays at the surface of representation. The company permits its audience the pleasure of witnessing how the rough materials of a bucket and blue tarpaulin can create a storm. This storm does not signal a moment of high tragedy but formal daring and experimentation on the Globe Theatre stage.

Keren Zaiontz
Lecturer of Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies 
Roehampton University