The upcoming Aardklop Festival at Potchefstroom from September 24 to 29 is brave enough to stage the spectacular Koningin Lear. DIANE DE BEER spoke to director Marthinus Basson before its debut at this year’s Klein Karoo Art Festival:
Pictures: Hans van der Veen
Director/designer Marthinus Basson and Belgian writer Tom Lanoye are a match made in theatre heaven. They’ve proved that with previous collaborations including Mamma Medea (translated by Antjie Krog) and Bloed en Rose (translated by Basson). And they’ve done it again with this majestic production.
Combining the craft, cunning and creativity of these two to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Klein Karoo Arts Festival was genius.
This time Lanoye reimagined Shakespeare’s King Lear with Krog (again) translating and Basson directing what is a dream cast. Koningin Lear stars Antoinette Kellermann as Elizabeth Lear who has reimagined her small inherited family business and built it into an international empire.
She is ageing with signs of dementia and announces that she wants to divide the business amongst her three sons, but each of them has to declare their love and loyalty to her. Her youngest and adored son refuses, and this unleashes a torrential family feud.
Many will recognise the bare bones of this tragic tale, but Lanoye being Lanoye, has tied this age-old and much revered play to issues most pressing of our time. It is described as an epic story that comments sharply on the business world where integrity and loyalty have disappeared, and greed has conquered everything and everyone in its wake.
The rest of the cast reads like a who’s who of Afrikaans theatre with Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Rolanda Marais, André Roothman, Neels van Jaarsveld, Wilhelm van der Walt, Edwin van der Walt and Matthew Stuurman, all on one stage, something to relish.
With all these tasty ingredients in one basket (and the almost clean sweep of prizes at their debut festival), it’s a feast that should be tough to resist for theatre lovers.
It’s a tough one though, says Basson.
And this is the closest he will get to the one Shakespeare play he vowed never to direct. “I saw the perfect production as a very young man in Munich and I promised I would never mess with that memory,” he says. “I saw a proper catharsis on stage.”
As he talks about the production, every detail is still seared into his memory – from the performances to the production. “To experience heartache like that made me realise why theatre is great. That’s what we should be investing in.”
But Lanoye and a reimagining of the Lear story (rather than the real deal) was impossible to resist -with its focus on family, all tied together by blood. A bloody family feud is at the centre with power, an ageing matriarch sharing her bounty with her sons and many modern-day ills rearing their heads, including avarice, anorexia, cunning, deviousness, anxiety and the list goes on. It’s soul food for both the players and those of us watching.
As often with festivals, time is a problem. “We have too little time to rehearse,” says the master of theatre who is always expected to create miracles – which he does. The play is also three hours long, not the ideal at a festival. Yet Basson junkies will know this is one not to miss And having seen the production three times already – and will do so again, it’s a joy to experience. Like the Lear he saw that kept him spellbound, this has similar impact.
In today’s world where economy dictates to the arts, even spectacular productions seldom travel further even with all these riches attached, so this Aardklop run followed by one at The Baxter Theatre is a rare treat.
One of these riches is not only the Lanoye text but also the Krog translation. Those of us who witnessed Mamma Medea 17 years ago can remember the poetry of her text. “She’s naughty at times,” notes Basson (as she was with the previous text), but it’s a tough one because Afrikaans is cumbersome with rhythms such a determining factor in Shakespeare’s language. Her translation though is resilient, something he admires.
Because she and Lanoye have worked together before, she understands his writing and he allows her a free hand to interpret. All this leads to a strong South African-slanted Koningin Lear, which adds a secret soap element to this particular Shakespeare.
It is the world of BIG BUSINESS with TV screens dominating the room, skype rather than cell phones is the communicating tool and on the agenda are markets that might implode, rampant social media and fake news.
When the eldest son has to swear undying love, he mentions acquisitions like the Plet home, his horses, his Porsche Cayenne and a celebrated vintage wine, all he would relinquish for his mother. You can hardly go more South African than that.
But it is a hellish text to manage, especially for Kellermann, says Basson, who is delighted that she (being the professional she is) had all that down before they even start work. Yet his heart yearns for plays with 42 players rather than the seven they have, to make this one work. But being Basson, of course he pulled it off with a floruish!
When speaking to Basson, he usually refers to the current production as his last one. Fortunately for local theatre and audiences, he can’t help himself. Whether it is his own imagination that drives him, the opportunities he cannot resist, plays he cannot turn away from or performers he enjoys working with, he keeps coming back. And audiences applaud.
Like the King Lear that stole his heart because time stopped while the story was told, he does similar things when making theatre. It’s always in the detail – no matter how big or small. In the end it all comes together in a production that for Basson fans adds to the greatness of his oeuvre.
This one is a gift for audiences.
An extract of my KKNK wrap:
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the magnificent troika of playwright Tom Lanoye, translator Antjie Krog and director Marthinus Basson. Koningin Lear is a majestic production worthy of the 25th anniversary of the KKNK with Antoinette Kellermann in the role of a lifetime (and her career as we all know, is not a shabby one).
But Lanoye, having said that the role was created with her in mind, has written a part for the ages, on a scale that few women get the chance to play. From the moment she enters the stage and grabs the attention, dressed to kill, until she collapses in a bundle of bones in a shabby slip of a petticoat with her darling son dead in her arms, she is allowed to tower above them all with a might that obliterates, until it turns on her in similarly cruel fashion.
With a script that would have many on their knees, but that Kellermann masters powerfully, her queen of the business world storms majestically but stumbles as disastrously as she demands that her three sons vie for the family riches by declaring their undying love.
It’s in the shading of her character and her speech that Kellermann astounds in this almost three hour play as she paints a picture of a woman fading both mentally and physically as she is ravaged by the worlds she was seen to have conquered yet is ready to relinquish – or so she thinks. It’s about grandeur and grandiosity which falters as greed in every sphere becomes the overwhelming motivator.
Not only does Kellermann command the stage and the character physically, emotionally she gives it all in a role which demands this kind of effort. The work isn’t visible, and the results are riveting.
A New York Times quotation published in the book of the translated play from a review written by Paul Krugman of Thomas Piketty’s Capital of the Twenty First Century captures the intent of this Lanoye flirtation with King Lear: We haven’t just gone back to the 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”.
And this dynastic aspect is glaringly explored and exploited in the three sons: Gregory (Neels van Jaarsveld playing the bully with brawn), Hendrik (Wilhelm van der Walt portraying his character’s smarmy self-serving mode) and Cornald (Edwin van der Walt as the gentler more caring sibling and in a contrasting scene-stealing junkie performance).
The eldest two brothers are supported by their differently conniving wives, Connie (a brilliant Anna-Mart van der Merwe as the flamboyantly brassy broad) and Alma (Ronalda Marais as the silent usurper whose roots tug at her better self but loses the battle).
A business-like André Roothman as the somewhat bewildered Kent and Matthew Stuurman as the carer and moral compass, Oleg, complete a cast that contributes and brilliantly balances the whole.
With all his design and directing flair on display, Basson began with clever casting because with a storming Kellermann in the lead of a play titled Koningin Lear, it could have been a lopsided production and it needed all the pieces to fit together.
None of this would have been possible without Antjie Krog’s staggering translation of Tom Lanoye’s Flemish text. She has such command of what she wants to say and how she says it that it gives a specific context, a gravitas as well as playfulness, all of which combine to make it such an exciting and textured work to both watch and listen to. It also allows the actors to spread their wings and with a director of Basson’s stature and vision, the guidance to make this one fly.
Koningin Lear plays at Aardklop, Potchefstroom from September 24 to 29; and at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre from November 7 to 16.