The Wyly Theater Dallas is built for sleek, modern productions. The building is a square adorned with brushed metal pipes and the mostly concrete lobby is lit by vertically mounted, fluorescent tubes. The theater walls are black, and seats on movable risers allow directors and set designers to rework the space to accommodate whatever whims they might have. The productions are sleek and modern too, and the theater’s recent production of Shakespeare’s King Lear was no exception.
The story, of course, endures not because of its modernness but because of its timelessness. The story of King Lear dividing his kingdom between his two scheming daughters, Gonreil and Regan while shunning the true love of his faithful daughter Cordelia taps into themes of family and politics and power. And the modern updates are meant to serve these themes. Though the Shakespearean language remains, the cast dresses like the corporate elite, decked in tailored suits and dresses. They brandish pistols instead of swords, and as the play turns to open combat, they don paramilitary gear complete with survival knives strapped to their thighs.
As with many modern takes on Shakespeare, such updates work best when they are used to immerse the audience in a more familiar world, to help them remember that the story is a story for our times too. This, of course, is a hard line to walk because such appointments are often an attempt to make Shakespeare relevant, and attempts at relevance often careen into a crushing self-consciousness. When this happens the updates end up distracting from the show and make the sometimes unfamiliar language even more unfamiliar because of the disconnect between what we see and what we hear.
Thankfully, this production mostly avoids these pitfalls, and this is in no small part due to the brilliantly designed set. Michael McGarty’s set design conveys the halls of power with wood paneled walls and hulking columns. We could easily be in the throne room of a palace or in the corner office of a high-powered executive. It is a minimal affair built to serve the story, masterfully walking the modern/timeless line. And as the play progresses the set becomes more and more a part of the show.
Another update is the decision to cast Gloucester as a female, a choice that mostly works. Gloucester as mother and Lear as father expands some the play’s familial themes, as we see the dynamics of a father with his daughters and a mother with her sons. But not all the modern updates work as well. Some have commented that Brian McEleney’s portrayal of Lear comes off at times like the ravings of a demented man. There is something to this criticism. So much of the play is modern, so why not a modern explanation for Lear’s irrationality? From our modern viewpoint Lear’s irrational raging and his inability to recognize Cordelia’s deep love might very well seem like the ravings of an aging mind. Unfortunately, such an explanation undercuts much of the play’s intrinsic moral weight because it is Lear’s moral culpability and the possibility that he might repent that lends the play its sense of tragedy.
Strangely, it is the set itself that most communicates the moral weight of the play, particularly in the storm scene. As Lear rages and the storm roars, the set begins to collapse around him, and as I watched the deluge bring the set crashing down, I was reminded of Peter Leithart’s discussion of the play in Deep Comedy.
In that book he argues for a Christian view of history that is essentially comic, in contrast to a Greek view of history that is essentially tragic. He discusses how these viewpoints play out in literature and uses King Lear to illustrate that the comic view of history actual deepens our sense of tragedy. To put it in terms of the play, if we are, as Gloucester asserts, only the playthings of the gods, then things are tragic because they could not be otherwise. Fate or the gods rule the day so that history itself becomes tragic. But if, as Edmund says, what befalls us is “often the surfeit of our own behavior,” then things are tragic precisely because they could have been otherwise. It is the possibility of redemption, the possibility of the comic ending, that makes tragedy all the more tragic.
Which takes us back to Lear on the heath, raging in the night against the gods. Though rain leaks through the ceiling and the thunder claps all around, the set reminds us that Lear’s world is crashing down not because of the cruel machinations of fate, but because of his own blindness and hard heartedness. The storm strips the set almost to stone, and as the scene progresses, Lear strips himself too. Lear, the once great king, is naked and alone, and as he stands stripped on the ruins of the collapsed set, we know that Lear’s exile is because of Lear, not because of cruel gods or faceless fate.
And what makes Lear’s state even sadder is that the possibility of redemption stands open for him. He could reconcile with Cordelia, and it is the possibility of reconciliation that deepens our sense of tragedy. As Leithart puts it, “The play is filled with the unrealized possibility of restoration, redemption, resurrections in a way that ancient tragedy could never be” (125). To be caught up in machinations beyond ourselves is tragic, but it is far more tragic when those machinations come from within us. Lear is exiled not because of fate, but because he is seduced by flattery and unable to accept the love of his faithful daughter. Gloucester is blinded not because she is a plaything of the gods but because of Edmund’s scheming. And it is this simple insight that makes the tragedy actually tragic—it could have been otherwise.
But the play does not end merely in tragedy. At the end of the production, the newly crowned Edgar stands on the summit of the collapsed set. His ascent to the throne is a kind of resurrection—Poor Tom raised up from the dust to be king. The set plays its part again by reminding us that something good might come from the ashes.