DIVIDED KINGDOM: Needcompany’s King Lear

The Brooklyn Academy of Music has become a major destination in New York City for productions of Shakespeare, most of them from England. In the last year and a half, BAM has hosted the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Almeida Theater Company’s Coriolanus in repertory with Richard II (both starring Ralph Fiennes), and two productions of Hamlet, one from the Royal National Theater and the other from Peter Brook’s Paris-based international company. This fall, BAM’s annual Next Wave Festival has only one Shakespeare scheduled, but it’s likely to be a doozy: a production of King Lear -- directed by Jan Lauwers and performed by his Brussels-based Needcompany -- that Joseph V. Melillo, artistic director of BAM, has called “artistically ambitious,” even “dangerous.”

Needless to say, the Flemish company’s King Lear doesn’t look or sound anything like what you’d see at the Royal Shakespeare Company. This Lear runs a little over two hours long without intermission and is performed with no sets or costumes to speak of. Each act opens with a spare, contemplative dance interlude choreographed by Italian dancer Carlotta Sagna, a longtime Needcompany associate. The text is spoken primarily in Dutch with some English and a little French by a cast of a dozen powerful international actors. The roles of the Fool and Kent are merged into one character, which will played in New York by Josse de Pauw, an acclaimed movie actor and stage monologuist whom director Lauwers refers to as “the Spalding Gray of Belgium.” Lear himself is played by Tom Jansen, whom Lauwers only half-jokingly calls “the Robert Mitchum of Belgium,” reflecting his history of playing everything from classic stage roles to police chiefs on TV. The screen at the back of the stage projecting Shakespeare’s text in English is not just a convenience for the audience -- it virtually becomes the 13th actor in the show, especially in Act 5, when war breaks out, all hell breaks loose, and the actors struggle to be heard above the deafening blare of sinister, Teutonic versions of trashy 1960s pop songs as adapted by San Francisco’s art-rock band, the Residents.

The production is to some extent a contemporary European commentary on the bellicose state of the world, but all its radical elements are wielded in service of what Lauwers calls “one of the saddest plays Shakespeare ever wrote.” He points out that the bleak ending of the play -- “the heroes die a completely insignificant, unsatisfying death, and death does not supply the pretext for any display of fine writing” -- was bowdlerized for 200 years after Shakespeare wrote it, until it was restored by Edmund Kean. 

“King Lear is a very dramatic and negative play without hope,” Lauwers said in a telephone interview from France, where the extended Needcompany family was making its first feature film, Goldfish Game. “What can you do with that fifth act? It’s so bitter and misanthropic, you feel Shakespeare was doubting civilization. On one hand, I totally agree with this view; on the other hand, I hate it. We were rehearsing it when heavy things were happening in Yugoslavia, which one day away from Brussels by car. Genocide in the Balkans, the problems between Israelis and Palestinians -- when you do King Lear, you see it will never change.”

Bertolt Brecht would present such hopelessness onstage as a challenge to the audience: “Change the world!” Lauwers is no Brechtian. “I’m very sure that art cannot change the world,” he said. But he’s not fatalistic, either. “Art is my way to survive. I try to make it as good as possible.”

Founded in 1987, Needcompany is part of the explosion of new Flemish performance that brought such choreographers as Anna Teresa de Keersmaker and Wim Vandekeybus to international attention. And it has become one of the most remarkable and influential ongoing theater ensembles in Europe today. Strongly inspired by the New York-based experimental theater of the Wooster Group and Pina Bausch’s epic dance-theater, Needcompany has distinguished itself with its core of supremely skilled, multidisciplinary, and multinational performers as well as Lauwers’ directorial vision. Although he considers himself first and foremost a visual artist, Lauwers doesn’t compose stage pictures with the chilly detachment associated with brand-name directors such as Robert Wilson. His trademarks include a pervasive melancholy and a radically intimate sense of the actors and the audience being in the same room together.

The company’s very first piece, Need to know, was seen briefly in New York at the Kitchen in 1988. But Needcompany first made a big impression here two years ago when they performed Morning Song as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. No one could quite identify what art form Morning Song belonged to -- it was a multi-generational family saga that included a talk-show panel, a rock concert, some dancing, and a full meal cooked and served onstage in the course of the performance -- but at the end of the season it won an Obie Award from the Village Voice and was named one of the 10 best shows of 1999 by New York Theater Wire

Since the beginning, Needcompany has routinely alternated between creating original works and mounting idiosyncratic stagings of Shakespeare. “It’s good for an ensemble to do Shakespeare every so often, just to recharge the batteries,” Lauwers said. 

Needcompany’s work returns again and again to these basic questions: what is art? What is theater? The use of titles in this production is partly a practicality, given Lauwers’ decision to have all the actors speak primarily in their native tongues. (While Tom Jansen is Dutch, Muriel Heriault, who plays Cordelia, is French, and Dick Crane, who plays both Cornwall and Albany, is English.) But aside from translating the words simply so the audience could understand what the actors were saying, Lauwers found that projecting the text had a powerful theatrical impact. ‘When someone says ‘Kill!’ you hear the word, you make a mental connection, then you see the word. That makes you really ask questions about the power of illusion in the theater. It’s like looking at Shakespeare under a microscope.”

Much of the play is staged with Kabuki simplicity. Lear often stands on a low platform at center stage; other actors sit facing front, looking out, speaking or not. Nothing is more stripped bare than the play’s most Grand Guignol moment, the onstage blinding of Gloucester. Turning to the audience, Cornwall says, “Trying to do this next scene onstage is a total fucking joke.” Then he and Lear’s daughter Regan seem to bite or suck the eyes out of Gloucester’s head. From then on, Gloucester simply sits onstage with his hand cover his eyes -- an eloquence depiction of blindness.

“It’s so important to emphasize that theater is not in competition with cinema or the cruel reality among us,” said Lauwers. “On TV you see hard-core images of war. How can you compete with the first 20 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s movie, Saving Private Ryan? Theater goes to a mental place. We can’t show reality. We have to have a moment of reflection, maybe. I strongly believe that’s the hope and future of theater. It’s about doing something with somebody else watching.”

Stagebill, October 2001

More on Jan Lauwers and Needcompany: feature on Morning Song here and an article on the Flemish performance scene here