If you told the same high school senior tickled by Edmund’s “stand up for bastards” speech she would one day see it performed live at William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, she would have brusquely dismissed you as joking.
But see “King Lear” I did on Monday night, after visiting Ronnie Scott’s jazz club and tying up a few loose ends with coursework. At around 7:30 p.m., I braved the cold and mist and darkness to go stand in the Yard and watch Shakespeare’s tragedy unfold.
The take on Shakespeare we saw Monday night was vastly different from the “Much Ado About Nothing” I saw last month. This season’s “Much Ado” was performed by an energetic cast and was reset in turn-of-the-century Mexico. “King Lear,” on the other hand, kept the Shakespearean speech, was about as grey and tragic as you’d expect it to be (save wry, gallows humor) and was outfitted in a way where you couldn’t discern a specific time or place for the setting.
It was good and of course it was: it was the Globe. The play was quite physical with its spinning metal carts used for imprisonment and sex, the way Lear lashed out at Kent, the way a blinded Gloucester groped about and the constant scatter of actors drumming to transition scenes. Sitting back (standing back, rather) and watching Edgar transform from clueless goody-two-shoes to eccentric beggar to “the leader he doesn’t want to be but has to be” was treat.
But the lack of temporal clues really threw my peers and me off. Being very much into clothes and the messages they send, I was looking to the costumes for clues. If not about a period in history past, present or future, then maybe a place we were familiar with or even could imagine. I saw furs and waistcoasts and fishermen’s jackets and velvet skirts and grey sweatpants and teased hair and pinstripes and embroidered shawls and clunky earrings and tweed jackets and skirt suits and dad caps and suspenders to no concrete conclusion. It was as if you’d thrown the ’80s and Pinterest normcore and Yeezy Season 2 into a blender and served it over ice.
I live for grey area. And yet, I did not like the ambiguity of this play’s situation in our minds. If anything, it seemed to be more vague than ambiguous, and therefore, ineffective.
Of course, when we hashed it out in class, we were a given a more metaphysical perspective. Shakespeare’s oeuvre has lived on in Western imaginations for centuries because of its timelessness. It follows, then, that this production is valid in being equally “timeless.” Hence the melange of different vibes and period pieces.
We were also presented another, more poetic, class-oriented reading of the production: a play within a play. Judging from the way this motley crew is dressed, carries backpacks at the show’s start and tears down various elements of the stage to get comfortable, we can consider the actors to be homeless, displaced people putting on a play of their own.
For me, this reading of the play clicked most in my brain. Not only did I feel less unsettled about it all, but I felt a bit bad for the way I had piled on with my peers in critiquing the confusing costumes. We came to the conclusion that it was just a matter of making intentions more clear to the audience.
I will admit to an uncharacteristically stubborn adherence to the concrete on this one. I will also admit to hypocrisy. This harsh critique is coming from a woman who has, on occasion, indulged in watching the CW’s “Reign,” and peacefully tolerates Mary Queen of Scots’ Dolce + Gabbana get-ups. And yet, I just could not settle for the costumes of “King Lear” being left atemporal or undefined.
At the very least, I can commend Nancy Meckler’s effort in trying to walk the line between traditional and eclectic. I’m still not sure if I can co-sign the fruits of her effort, though.