The Belarus Free Theatre’s “King Lear” (https://www.chicagoshakes.com/plays_and_events/belarus_lear) can be hard to watch. Performed in Belarusian, you have to continually shift your eyes from reading the supertitles above the stage to watching the action below. The words above are among Shakespeare’s most knotty verse, while the Belarusians below are electrifying: such passion and energy and inventive antics, you can’t keep your eyes off them! So read and reread “King Lear” before you come, but come if you can.
The Belarus Free Theatre’s “King Lear” is also hard because they do not present the play as a tragedy, but as satire or farce. Lear is a crass, angry tyrant, played by a hilarious and horrifying Aleh Sidorchyk. The moral of this “Lear” is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Each character is either drunken, naked, filthy, cruel, brutal, hypocritical, or insane. The starkest contrast from the usual portrayals are Cordelia (Victoria Biran) and the Fool (Elias Faingersh). Cordelia is a besotted floozy. The Fool is a profane trombonist wholly oblivious to the wisdom hidden in his jests.
Shakespeare’s greatest power as a writer is what classical rhetoric refers to as “invention”: he makes words do new things. Shakespeare not only neologized more than any other author in the idiom, but he cast tropes and extended metaphors, making image systems, like no other. The Belarus Free Theatre discovers expressionist theatrical equivalents to Shakespeare’s words. With only everyday items (a suitcase full of dirt, a few tarps, some peanut butter) they dramatize the partition of Lear’s kingdom, the storm, and Poor Tom’s madness in ways you need to see for yourself and, when you do, will never forget.
The ultimate payoff of this challenging production comes as we fully realize that what we are witnessing is not a tragedy. This is not about the fall of a great man. Nor is the suffering we witness something extraordinary. (This is dramatized when Lear and Cordelia are roughly and humiliatingly processed into prison as if in Minsk today.) This is the fall of a powerful brutal dictator who brings everything down around with him. Defying Shakespeare’s directions, Cordelia’s death happens on stage rather than off. We are made to witness her strangled from behind, her breasts falling out of her dress, lifted off her feet, writhing while choked to death. It is grotesque, pitiful, hard to watch.
A more subtle example of their theatrical invention comes with “Re-enter KING LEAR, with CORDELIA dead in his arms.” (Dr. Johnson complained that this scene was too hard to bear!) An armored glove, what had been a symbol of his authority becomes the ultimate symbol of his impotence. He holds the reflective metal up to her lifeless lips seeking lingering signs of her breath. Lear claims to see a sign of life. “Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips./ Look there, look there. O, O, O, O.” he says, pathetically trying to distract our prying eyes from his own miserable demise.
Karl Marx said, “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. […] the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Many of the tyrants of the 20th Century and even today have ridden to power reading from Marx’s script. One has ruled in Belarus for more than two decades and made a world where the dignity and majesty, the pity and terror of tragedy is impossible. The beauty of this “King Lear” by the Belarus Free Theatre is that they find fierce humor, rough poetry and existential insight while staring hard into the bitter black heart of this world.