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142 LETTERS IN CANADA 1991 Alexander Leggatt. King Lear Shakespeare in Performance Series. Manchester University Press. 146. $39.95; $14.95 paper Over its long history, King Lear has struck many as somehow too much to cope with. Nahum Tate rewrote the play to smooth away its jagged incongruities, rendered its pathos more conventional by erasing the strain of wild grotesquerie, recast the devastating ending into acceptable poetic justice. While Tate's version displaced the original on English stages for more than 150 years, Romantic reverencers of the Bard on the other hand proclaimed Lear too grandly profound to be staged at all. Even in more recent times, with Shakespeare's plot restored, some have felt that the play's symbolic discourse of extreme action and stark opposition of good and evil comes across better through the nonverbal theatrical methods of European expressionism, without its particularizing native language. Nevertheless, directors and actors in the English-speaking countries have kept on rising to meet the Lear challenge. Alexander Leggatt's insightful study of some notable productions for stage, film, and television in the last sixty years, canvassing Lears from a youthful Gielgud to an Olivier near his own death, makes us glad they did. In recreating their work, Leggatt draws on prompt books, directors' notes, photographs, interviews, memoirs of actors and directors, reviews, and notes of observers, as well as his own memories and, more broadly, his considerable theatrical experience. The result is a remarkably comprehensive approach that attends to sound effects, blocking and camera framing, and backstage mechanics as well as acting; to actors' physical type as well as their dress and bearing; to changes in production and reception in seasons aft~r the first, or on tour; to the wider political and theatrical contexts. This sounds rather daunting in summary, but Leggatt keeps us anchored in specifics: the ruffs worn by courtiers in Jonathan Miller's BBC production that frame and isolate the actors' faces, the room full of chairs in which Robin Phillips sets his fifth act - chairs lined up in rows between the victorious Edmund and the defeated Lear and Cordelia to measure their disempowerment, chairs that fill the space with obstacles, giving physical expression to the pressure of events closing in on Regan as she cannot make her panicky escape from the room without knocking over the furniture. Writers for the Shakespeare in Performance Series have to face the problem of how to treat each selected production honestly on its own terms and yet create something more integrated than a mixed bag of discrete observations and judgments. Leggatt succeeds admirably. One way he gives shape to the whole is to identify at the beginning some central choices that must be made by any director and company: how to HUMANITIES 143 stage variously problematic sequences like the storm, the Fool's cruel badinage, Gloucester's attempt to leap off Dover cliff; whether to make us cry or actively prevent emotional involvement; whether to present Lear as Blakean Titan or as frail senex, a fixed, reiterative character or one who changes and grows; whether to strive for affirmation or come down on the side of bleakness and absurdity. In the discussion of individual productions that follows, Leggatt does not confine himself to the initial set of divergent directions outlined here, but they help structure it as recurrent points of reference. The underplayed storm in Kozintsev's Lear is a pointer to the Russian director's preoccupation with society rather than nature; the storm sequence in Brook's film version is much more central, creating through angles and lighting a disorienting, discontinuous perspective that involves us in Lear's madness and the larger vision of an entire system breaking down into chaos. Gielgud's mercurial moodchanges imply an evolving Lear, altering in response to new experience. But Leggatt, refusing to oversimplify, finds that comparable shifts of inflection in Olivier's portrayal produce the opposite effect, since they are used not as manifestations of real change but as Lear's own desperate strategies to escape the knowledge that new experience might otherwise force upon him. Moving through these productions under Leggatt's astute guidance, one becomes aware of changing theatrical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 142-143
Launched on MUSE
2017-05-25
Open Access
No
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