The first thing when going to see Koningin Lear, is throw your Shakespeare out the window. Or no. Don’t do that. Put it back on the shelf and google the synopsis.
It is not King Lear in Afrikaans, it’s an adaptation, a re-imagining, a riot. Freedom from the Elizabethan English allows this play to fly loose and spit on corporate profiteering with the venom of a 17th Century Globe Theatre gin rag.
Antoinette Kellermann is not Queen Lear. This isn’t simply about changing the genders. She is Koningin, ruler of her domain. Which in this adaptation by Belgian writer Tom Layone, is a multinational company. It is global in its reach, and she is on the top floor.
Shakespeare’s story of Lear; the madness of power, the interfamilial conspiracies and feuds spurred by greed; the injustice heaped upon the loyal, and the vengeance of fate, are contained by Layone by melding Cordelia and Edgar into a single character, while Kent and Gloucester are similarly intermingled. Montaging the script creates a shorthand that places it in the present while remaining true to the intention. Under Marthinus Basson’s direction Koningin Lear comes to life in a series of iconic scenes so well acted they are almost painful to watch. I admit it took about half of the first scene – Kellermann striding into a meeting to divide the company assets among her three sons is a lesson in magnificence – before my ears started tuning in to die taal. Not being a home language speaker, many of the idioms were lost on me, but the clarity of the body language, the expressions, where the characters moved and where they sat or didn’t, filled in the gaps.
It’s an intriguingly stark set – but of course, Lear is a stark play – and the mirrored flats upstage before which are placed a boardroom and chairs speaking of functionality and minimalist design, warped the characters into similes of their twisted and monstrous motives. A series of downward-angled screens running along the top of the back wall, which initially beam a close-up of Lear as she commands the meeting, multiplies her image and underscores the high-tech surveillance and closed circuitry of the present. They are later used to impress the storm upon us. It is no ordinary storm. It’s a globally heated monster of chaos. It occurs in the second half, the carefully constructed mirrors and flatdrops torn apart. Blown asunder; ground zero in the urban shambles. Here we encounter ‘Poor Tom’, who is not a disguised Edgar, but Cordelia. Or, in this adaptation, Corné (Edwin van der Walt), who has returned from somewhere in the East (Korea, perhaps?) but has no army to fight for his mother’s empire. All he has is veins full of holes and a bad itch. There is actually no Edmund or Edgar or Gloucester in Koningin Lear, which makes one think Shakespeare was a bit redundant. But then short(er) plays weren’t the order of the day back in the early 1600s; there was little other entertainment. No clickbait.
One character who this adaptation disappoints, is the Fool. Here he is more a nurse, and briefly, deliciously, a lover, and does not seem included to his full potential. So critical, and such a delight in the original, his barbs of truth are missing. This is not at the actor’s door. Matthew Stuurman is permanently present, both in sight and being, but not well drawn. Another quibble is the action never moved downstage, making the play strangely two-dimensional. This, coupled with not quite enough projection from some of the actors – Neels van Jaarsveld mostly – created a distancing that played to spectacle more than necessary. A choreographer may also have helped in the storm scene, we watched the actors pretending to be in the driving rain, not actually being it. Too much reliance on the words and not enough focus on the body. Still, watching Kellerman gone mad with a traffic cone midstage is an image to flare in the memory for years.
Koningin Lear plays at the Baxter theatre until Saturday 16 November. Booking and info here.
Cast: Antoinette Kellermann, André Roothman, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Rolanda Marais, Neels van Jaarsveld, Wilhelm van der Walt, Edwin van der Walt, Matthew Stuurman.
Direction and design by Marthinus Basson. Text: Tom Lanoye. Translation: Antjie Krog. Lighting: Nicolaas de Jongh. Costume: Elaine du Plessis. Sound: Rynhart van Blerk. Audio-visual: Dawid Joubert.