At the end of almost three hours without intermission, the applause sounds like a real sigh of relief with, in the air, this persistent impression tinged with weariness, of a missed appointment. King Lear had never been given at the Comédie-Française and was to enter the repertoire of the prestigious house with great fanfare.
The poster was more than promising with Denis Podalydès in the title role, the German Thomas Ostermeier, a licensed explorer of Shakespeare’s work, directing and Olivier Cadiot penning a new translation. Of this triumvirate, only the first, deploying as always an art of communicative surprise, will valiantly resist disappointment.
The audience invited into the room
However, when the curtain opens, the spectator is immediately transported to a hostile moor that overflows onto the proscenium and seems in a bank of mist to stretch to infinity towards an invisible horizon. In this striking setting, a throne, luminous frames and a foldable tent alone will mark the changes of location. This dark and mysterious scenography is completed by the addition of a footbridge spanning the floor of the Richelieu room.
This device, already used by Ostermeier for Twelfth Night or whatever you want in 2018 breaks the fourth wall and integrates the public into the play. The latter, while the room often remains lit, is regularly taken to task by the characters: Lear himself, at the beginning, when he exposes his desire to divide his kingdom between his daughters, or later, Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester, in an astonishing astrological parenthesis. Served by an ever more fascinating Christophe Montenez in a game with multiple dimensions, this digression turns out to be very amusing but evaporates with the vacuity of a soap bubble.
Like this sequence, under the direction of Ostermeier, Lear, one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful figures, singularly loses its consistency. The director chose to tighten the plot – but not the representation, unfortunately –, mirroring the fate of the daughters of Lear and the sons of Gloucester, friend of the king.
On one side or the other, in fact, two blind fathers reject the only one of their children who was truly steeped in good intentions towards them: the pure Cordelia – gracefully embodied by Claina Clavaron, whose truncated presence we regret. by the cutting of the text – and the loyal Edgar – formidable Noam Morgensztern as an outcast, victim of Edmund’s plots. Lear’s two other daughters, husbandless in this version, are played by Jennifer Decker (Regan) and Marina Hands (Goneril), stunning as bloodthirsty Amazons. Alongside them, Stéphane Varupenne wows the gallery as a schoolboy and impertinent madman, and Séphora Pondi plays a female version of Kent, Lear’s faithful ally.
A translation without thickness
This flamboyant cast, led by a Denis Podalydès in top form, between anger and lunar ramblings – a tad bit of histrionics, but largely forgiven for that – distills an admirable generosity towards the public which, alas, is not enough to keep Ostermeier’s ship afloat. From hour to hour, something frays that neither the aesthetics of the set nor the originality of the music, provided by two trumpets sometimes behind the scenes sometimes on the balcony, manage to mend. It is through the text first of all that the shoe pinches. By seeking to “fluidify” it, Olivier Cadiot, in a new translation stripped of the original versification, loses the thickness of the Shakespearian language.
The breath of tragedy also disappears in Ostermeier’s choices. With an offbeat humor and a facade of irreverence, perhaps wanting too much to give a personal – and restrictive – reading to Shakespeare’s play, he evacuates its constitutive depth. The shipwreck of age and the shadow of death pass to the background of a staging which, as it progresses, seems in vain to seek its way like Lear lost on the moor. To crown these mistakes, the director simply decides to evade the ending written by William Shakespeare, depriving the audience and the actors of a magnificent moment of theatre, and replaces it with a flat epilogue, sealing for many good the reign of boredom.
A Shakespeare lover
Thomas Ostermeier was born in 1968, in Soltau, Germany. He has been director of the Berlin Schaubühne troupe since 1999.
Great admirer of the work of William Shakespeare, he staged with a certain freedom, and the key to multiple successes, several of his plays, including A Midsummer Night’s dream in 2006, othello in 2010, measure for measure in 2011.
In 2008, he caused a sensation with a caustic reading of Hamlet with Lars Eidinger in the title role.
In July 2015, his explosive version of Richard III,presented at the Opéra Grand Avignon, is one of the events of the festival.
With King Learhe signs his second staging at the Comédie-Française after Twelfth Night or whatever you wantfrom Shakespeare in 2018.