What are we doing when we commemorate the dead, when we tell the stories of our leaders after they have gone? Nelson Chia’s reimagining of King Lear for Nine Years Theatre from 2018 (made available to World Shakespeare Congress delegates) asks as much of the storytellers as of those whose story is being told. In doing so, the company creates a Lear that is unusually compassionate in its insistence on seeing things from the other’s point of view, while also paradoxically offering pointed satirical critique of authoritarianism.
The show begins with a pre-show conversation that quickly reveals itself as part of an elaborate framing device. King Lear has recently died, and the Society of Fools are staging a dramatisation of his life. In the pre-show talk, and in interpolated dialogues throughout in which interviewers talk to the actors, producer and writer, the production interrogates the motives of the Society in telling this story. In between these interviews, the company of six enter a plain stage space, a simple mat framed by vertical metal bars in three of its corners, and perform their version of Lear’s story using the accoutrements of traditional Chinese theatre.
By turning Lear into a play within a play, the question of (re-)mediation becomes all-important. As this is a story told by the Fools, the Fool becomes one of the most important figures; indeed, the Fool’s role is split between several actors, surrounding Lear with a small army of obedient truth-tellers who challenge but also comfort him. The prosthetic beards and elaborate suspended head-pieces of the named characters give the scenes from Lear the formality of traditional theatre, but the more simply dressed Fools (whose white costumes are the substrate for all the other identities layered on top of them) mitigate this formality. They soothe and care for Lear in his distraction, showing a kind of love for their master.
This ‘love’, though, is what the interview segments implicitly interrogate. The interviewers smile and laugh, asking banal questions; they are visibly wearing the same costumes as the Fools, and are thus part of this performance even as their words position them outside it. But amid the superficial questions, more disarming ones emerge. The Society of Fools, one of the Fools asserts, have the privileged role of speaking truth back to the King; but they are also inevitably part of his inner circle. The interviewers ask if the Fools are trying to vindicate Lear, to which they reply that they are not, but that rather they are trying to demonstrate something of his humanity. Lear was not a god, but a man, and by showing his vulnerability, they hope to help audiences understand the king who has just died.
Yet can you critique an institution while also humanising it? This is something the television series The Crown wrestles with, having its cake while eating it in suggesting that there might be something fundamentally wrong with the institution of the monarchy while also inviting audience sympathy for that institution’s representatives in ways that ultimately validate them and it. Similarly here, as one of the Fools is asked how it feels to embody Lear, he explains that, in taking on the role, you realise that it isn’t possible to listen to everyone freely, to make decisions that work for everyone. In becoming Lear, the Fools shift from questioning him to apologising for him.
Some of the most moving scenes of the play within the play feature the Fools in close communion with Lear. Before the play proper starts, after the first interview there is a brief snapshot of the storm sequence with the Fools standing around the edges of the stage as Lear wheels in the wind and rain. The Fools speak back to him about the distinction between foolishness and madness, setting up what appears to be a contestation. But when we return to the storm later, the Fools now sing Lear’s experience, grouped together behind a microphone and accompanied by an awesome percussive score, while Lear dances to their tune. Even by this halfway point, the alignment between Lear and his Fools has become empathetic rather than critical, the Fools speaking for and with their master.
The Fools are grilled in the interviews about the authenticity of the history they are telling, and they’re very happy to admit the liberties they are taking. The final war, in particular, becomes a sung lament for a country ravaged by war, suggesting that battle is the graveyard of wisdom. But despite the overt artifice of the play within a play, whose self-conscious remediation does detract somewhat from the urgency of the depicted events, the production still finds space for some pathos. In particular, human relationships of care are presented with tact and dignity, notably Edgar’s care for Gloucester (and his grief as Gloucester finally collapses and dies), Kent’s loyalty to Lear (he reveals himself to Lear before the war starts) and Cordelia’s love for her father. By contrast, Edmund becomes even more arch, narrating the final acts of the war direct to the audience and cackling furiously as he watches Regan and Goneril commit suicide for love of him.
In the final talkback, which takes place before the war begins in earnest, the producer for the Fools speaks about the importance of theatre for helping to teach audiences about freedom of choice, learning about the future by better understanding the past. But she also announces that they have received an invitation to Denmark to perform at Elsinore following the death of another king, to which the interviewer responds by congratulating her on opening up to the international market. They’re also planning to restage Lear is Dead as a musical to increase its commercial appeal. How can a legacy that is being shaped through such self-serving processes seek to capture a truth that remains meaningful?
But this precedes the war, Lear’s death, and a scene set in the netherworld that reunites the play’s characters in death, and which offers a direct confrontation with the audience and with those retelling this story. Lear and his daughters and attendants gesture out at an audience that is crying and laughing and listening to their story, and reminds us of our responsibility in reshaping their history, their narrative. It is not the doers of deeds, but those who retell them, who shape history, and this is a responsibility that we must bear. It is words from Macbeth, not Lear, that ultimately sum up the production’s warning – that history may end up being a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. It’s up to those who tell the stories to ensure that they don’t signify nothing.