revew: 1623 theatre company – Lear/Cordelia
by Ben Spiller/Farrah Chaudhry/
dir Ben Spiller/Louie Ingham/
design Eleanor Field/
prod Christopher Lydon/
1623 theatre company/
Derby Theatre Studio/
The oldest have borne most: we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the titular King is left to mercy. His tragedy is to have burnt the wrong bridges, favoured the wrong daughters, been too much of a man. The elements, the family he has kept, show little mercy to him. Dementia by all accounts is not an illness famed for its mercy. It will strip memory, ability to think, ability to speak, and leave you dependant. Lear is stripped of his agency, his sanity, his possessions and his family.
1623 theatre company have, with the assistance of mental health academics, diagnosed Shakespeare’s Lear with various forms of dementia at specific points in the original text. The result is their diptych, Lear/Cordelia, whose first half has Lear a deteriorating patient in a nursing home, before jumping back to the day he moved out of his house, packing boxes with his daughter, Cordelia. The first half, Lear, takes its text from Shakespeare – rearranged by Ben Spiller into a poetic (re)reading of the original through the frame of Lear’s illness. Lear is stripped of his person, and of his ability to live in the present – trapped reliving the memories of the very daughters who are slipping from his mind.
The effect of reading Lear through this frame, and seeing the relationship between Cordelia and her father transposed onto a contemporary medical/social care situation is to almost erase the sense of a tragedy. In this reading, dementia is a condition of their relationship, present from the off – there is no rise, only a slow foreseen decline. There is no real ownership of the situation, not by Lear, who inhabits a sort of timeless space, or Cordelia, who exists as a hapless observer of her father’s deteriorating condition. Both characters become abject in the face of Lear’s illness, possessing only a fleeting presence, and precious little agency.
This production uses Shakespeare as a tool, a device for probing and muddying our present conditions. Each half is vital in illuminating the other, obliquely ensuring Lear/Cordelia is greater than the sum of its two parts. The gift of Shakespeare is its age and ubiquity; so long have these works been a part of our cultural landscape that we can turn them inside out and shake them, watching as obscure truths become apparent. In Cordelia, Farrah Chaudhry writes Lear as a retired Tory politician driven to move into care. Chaudhry’s Lear is an unrepentant and selfish old man, unwilling to accept the value of his daughter’s work in foreign medical aid. He refuses to relinquish his possession of his daughter.
The tragedy of the piece’s second half is Cordelia’s. In reflection of that of Shakespeare’s Lear, Cordelia’s tragedy is to be unable to separate herself from her family ties – to be unable to disregard her father. As in Shakespeare’s original, female energy collides with male, with the ultimate result of tearing all asunder. Lear half begs, half commands his daughter to care for him, as Cordelia resolves her care is better spent elsewhere. Lear’s character becomes an allegory for an English old guard – Cordelia’s for younger generations. What burdens are handed to us, what responsibilities must we deny to pursue our own politic? What is duty to a parent who opposes everything you stand for? Sharper than a serpent’s tooth is is to have a thankless father.
The reactionary code of ethics Lear operates by in Lear/Cordelia‘s second act is rendered utterly irrelevant in the first. He suffers the fate of being robbed of the ability to embody morality at all. At the same time, Cordelia’s resistance to reconnect with her father is rendered impotent as the things he stood for are stripped from him. She reconnects, but with a person who only used to be her father. It is the beauty of the evening’s structure that means the losses for each character only become apparent in retrospect.
In the space of two hours, the tragedy is handed from Lear to Cordelia, and then grows too inconceivable to belong to any single person at all.