The Theatre Gods Align for Koningin Lear

Koningin Lear with cast
TV screens amplified

We haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to “patrimonial capitalism”, in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.

From “Why we’re in a New Gilded Age”, The New York Review of Books — 8th of May 2014, Paul Krugman, reviewing Le Capital au XXI e Siècle, Thomas Piketty

And published as an introduction in the printed version of Koningin Lear

 

DIANE DE BEER

Pictures: Hans van der Veen

 

koningin-lear-in-storm.jpeg
The magnificent Antoinette Kellermann

Playwright Tom Lanoye has masterfully taken the iconic Shakespeare tragedy, King Lear, and recast it in a contemporary landscape with the most pressing issues of the 21st century all coming into play –  greed and grandiosity leading this particular wolfpack.

He starts with gender, flip-flopping the roles as the title Koningin Lear suggests, and gives the mighty Elizabeth Lear three sons: Greg, the eldest, Henry, the second in line, and Cornald or Corneltjie, her darling child. With the eldest two married, the two wives, Connie, the OTT shopaholic, and Alma, from the wrong side of the tracks and struggling to shrug that off, both play a particular type yet also connive with their husbands to secure future power.

Yet, as the original so smartly shows, greed might be the excess of our time, but there’s nothing new in the world of the top dogs except perhaps technology and the universal scale at which that power grows and disintegrates. It’s no longer a single kingdom on an island, everything and everyone in our universe is connected.

Koningin Lear
Neels van Jaarsveld and Anna-Mart van der Merwe

When you sneeze – especially if it affects the money markets – the effect takes on tsunami proportions. And this is where director Marthinus Basson ups the ante, being someone who always holds the bigger picture close. With this one it really counts.

The design adds to the dynastic feel of the production, which plays on different levels. Basson emphasises the age we live in with technology.  A backdrop of TV screens used in many different ways immediately add urgency and heightens the impact of the precarious nature of what Elizabeth is about to do.

More than anything else, power corrupts. And to play with it almost nonchalantly like this mother does, we all know will have devastating consequences.

koningin Lear Antoinette Kellermann
Antoinette Kellermann

This a family concern –  one that is worrying, because it is not necessarily the best that steps into a leadership position. Family is the determining factor, whether worthy or not.

Just a few minutes in, we already know that Elizabeth’s adviser would have been a better choice to make the handover a smooth and more successful one. For decades Robert Kent has been Elizabeth’s shadow, completely loyal to the family, often at his own cost

Lanoye’s words needed to be transformed in a South African context by someone who could adapt yet not dilute the essence of the playwright’s words. Antjie Krog, who previously worked wonders with the Mamma Medea translation, was the obvious choice. Not only did she have to translate, she had to transfer it to a local context.

Just listening to the language of this magisterial text is sublime, even the way Krog uses swear words or plays with the different characters in the way they use their language. She also knows how South Africans will react to different cars as wealth trophies and that “my losie by Lords” has more impact than Loftus, for example. It is all in the detail and why you can’t read, listen and experience the language and meaning enough.

koningin Lear trio
A scene from Koningin Lear

It’s a play that indulges your sense of disgust at the wealth accumulated by the powerful, their lifestyles, arrogance and disregard for anyone but their immediate family and then only those who find favour. They live by different rules and have no idea of or interest in anything but their own prosperity and anything that affects their well-being.

It is a work of majestic scale and demanded a majestic cast. With Antoinette Kellermann as Koningin Lear, half the battle is won. She is majestic as the matriarch of a business empire that she is in the throes of handing to her three sons. But first she asks for a declaration of their undying love with the results disastrous as she sets in motion a run of revolting, rampant greed and how that unhinges a dynasty in a modern world.

It’s no surprise that Steinhoff is snuck into the text at some point. If you still hadn’t got the drift, that will force you to take notice

Koningin Lear Antoinette Edwin
Edwin van der Walt in his extraordinary turn as the junkie and the powerful Antoinette Kellermann

We know the original story. It’s the way Lanoye has made this tigress fight until her last breath, the way Kellermann has ingested the text so that she can charge into glorious battle with her character and slay any dragons in her path.

And here her demise doubles up as she doesn’t only hand over all her weapons, her wealth and thus any sway, she also struggles with dementia with age finally catching up, something no money or willpower can change.

As the sons struggle with their inability to conquer the business world, pale shadows of their mother, their wives on the sidelines egg them on and soothe their egos.

It’s like an epic melodrama with a master conductor and performers who know how to play every word in its finest nuance. With the gravitas of André Roothman as Kent and a supreme supporting cast, it’s a play that strikes no false notes. Everything is music to your ears.

The three sons, Neels van Jaarsveld, Wilhelm van der Walt and Edwin van der Walt, with Anna-Mart van der Merwe and Rolanda Marais as the wives, represent a family in freefall. Not only have they not been schooled to take on their heritage, they only register the perks without any of the pitfalls.

On the sidelines, Matthew Stuurman is the carer and very importantly the moral compass who has nothing to gain or lose yet reacts with compassion to someone’s need, not something that registers where money is the only currency.

From start to finish, it is a production that ticks all the boxes. From the content to the language, the design and the staging, the extraordinary choice of cast with Kellermann conquering her most challenging role, it’s theatre to savour – over and over again.

Koningin Lear with cast

Koningin Lear is on at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre  from November 7 to 16.

 

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