Tuesday, August 27, 2013

King Lear

2008, RSC, Ian McKellan, Old Review
The delusions he fondly nourished are dispersed by a series of shocks. There is no going back from Lear's enlightenment. Cordelia returns but cannot last, not this side of the grave. Her reappearance can be only a patch of green in the relentless obliteration by time of good and ill ("you do me wrong to take me out of the grave"). The incomprehensible joy of reunion is soon displaced by the devastating pain of her sudden cruel death. The treachery of the sisters dwindles in the face of this act of nature. The "nevers" express an abyss of pain, born of a passionate philosophical conclusion as regards the finality of death. Strange that Lear could have forgotten that time must separate him from his daughter: later, if not too soon, as it turned out! His awakening is partial, after all. "Like two birds in a cage" is a naive fantasy: as if nothing happened, the blinding, the masks unpeeled. This is all about coming down in life: Kent, Edgar, Gloucester, Cordelia and of course Lear. Gloucester indeed falls lowest, because he actually "commits" the sin of "suicide", but is "miraculously" resurrected to work out his destiny to a logical conclusion. Each sees the globe dissolve, the dream evaporate. As Lear ventures into the storm, he is already a transformed man: the illusions whereby he lived have been swiftly dispersed and he has a more encompassing vision of life, which, in fact, he finds so refreshing that he will not be tempted by the offer of food and fire. He is a different man, and there is no return to the old self. The film gives us a masterly presentation, down to minute details of acting, like a lump in Kent's throat. It brings us closer to the heart of the matter.

Why must Cordelia die, as indeed she must? Lear, Gloucester? The answer must be in the scale of values we apply, and indeed to die is not the worst that can happen. We have to ask what is the purpose of life. For Lear to settle down cozily with his daughter after all that he has seen through, would hardly match the tenor of the play, even the transient reward of a kingdom being peanuts measured on the vastness of life's canvas, with the reality of death looming behind the cloud of our fecklessness. In fact in the plays conclusion, Lear takes yet another step in the awakening that started with the storm scene. Gloucester dies happy in his reunion, since life would have nothing more to offer. Even Edmund's eyes open to the shallowness of the life he lived. Oswald partakes of the illuminations of the drama in his sudden dispatch. To live happily ever after is a stasis incongruous to the scale of events depicted. Stasis is death, and progression life, even if it involves the stepping stone of dying. The four tragedies encompass an amplitude of life which can conclude with nothing short of the proverbial pile of corpses. The open spaces which are the stage of Lear symbolize the immensity of our inner space.

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