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Rise and fall

October 20, 2009

"King Lear" is William Shakespeare's darkest tragedy - in it, everything crumbles to pieces. German theaters have now revived the work. Could it be a response to the shaky situation around the world?

Archive: King Lear production at the Burgtheater in Vienna
"King" Lear is a tale of hopelessnessImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"King Lear" is one of Shakespeare's most famous works, but few German theaters have given it much notice in recent years. Now, within just a few weeks, actors have begun performing the play on major stages in Cologne, Bochum, Goettingen and Moers. Performances in Wuppertal and Oldenburg are due to follow soon.

In Bochum's Kammerspiele production, King Lear has little feeling. He divvies up his wealth - the shares of his family's business - and expects his daughters' endless love and devotion in return. He's not even moved by the rebellion of his youngest daughter Cordelia - he simply disinherits her.

Brutal successors

William Shakespeare
The playwright himselfImage: picture-alliance / imagestate/HIP

Bochum's theater director Elmar Goerden has staged Shakespeare's tragedy from a contemporary perspective. Stage designers Silvia Merlo and Ulf Stengl kept things simple, placing a bed at the front of the stage and a conference room in back. These are the settings for the ageing Lear's greatest challenge: relinquishing power. Cornelia's refusal sets everything in motion; the foundation begins to shake. But perhaps the collapse is inevitable, since the next generation is steered by cruelty, greed and scrupulousness.

Klaus Weiss portrays Lear as a ruler who is so accustomed to his authority, that he takes it completely for granted. But with the loss of his post and with it his power, and the obedience of his inferiors, he becomes completely helpless and flounders in the situation.

A reflection of bad times

The parallels between Lear and the bank managers and CEOs of late are so self-evident, that the staging need not even to refer to them. This rendition of Lear provokes no empathy. He alone is responsible for his demise: His emotional coldness shapes the generation that ultimately humiliates him and drives him insane.

"He is not portrayed as a good king in Shakespeare's original either," director Elmar Goerden noted. "It is mainly about the distribution of ownership and capital in the world, with the giver also expecting particular behavior in return."

For her part, Cologne's theater director Karin Beier said she has not chosen to stage "King Lear" as a political commentary on contemporary times. She is interested in the fundamental issues.

Cologne theater director Karin Beier
Cologne theater director Karin BeierImage: picture-alliance / dpa

"What's left when there are no longer family ties, or social or state ones?" she asked. "When even the ligaments that hold together one's body, or the structures that keep one's mind intact simply disappear? What's left of a human being? Lear asks this question when he's standing on the heath and sees Tom naked. And Shakespeare's answer to the question is nihilistic. He mutilates and demolishes human beings."

Women perform all the roles in Beier's production of "King Lear," even though in Shakespeare's day, only men acted - even women's roles. But Beier is not interested in feminist revenge. The six actresses kick down a wall, physically hurt themselves, and test their physical and mental limits.

"Women who express something about sadism, about cruelty, about brutality - this production is relentlessly brutal - are uncharted territory on a whole different level," said Beier. "I hope this approach allows me to create the spirit that Shakespeare intended - one that is very, very destructive."

All the world's a stage

The Cologne production of "King Lear" expects a lot from the audience - not only because of the blatant images, but also because the women play double roles. But the stuff of the tragedy is hard to swallow, wherever it is performed - whether in Goettingen, Moers, Wuppertal or Oldenburg. Anyone who stages "Lear" depicts a world without hope.

"By the end, nine of the 12 characters are dead," Goerden pointed out. "It's a tough approach, but if you really follow the story, it's completely plausible, logical even. There is no solace to be found in the piece."

Author: Stefan Keim (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen