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Boxing Day not just about Shane Warne…

26 Dec

…even if Boxing Day 2006 is.

Reading The Weekend Australian I notice that today is the 400th anniversary of King Lear, or of its first production.

IT seems an odd Boxing Day celebration: King Lear performed at the court of James I, its devastating tragedy illuminated by candlelight that festive but wan winter in 1606. Then again, what could be more exhilarating than to see a great Lear — as Shakespeare’s friend Richard Burbage no doubt was — essaying this mountain of a role in a play where the pity and the terror (Lear over the dead body of Cordelia, the blinding of Gloucester) are all but overwhelming…

There were various contemporary resonances that might have been in the air for that Christmas audience 400 years ago. There had been a famous court case in which two daughters had sought to have their father declared incompetent on the grounds of insanity and, according to the English literary critic William Empson, all Europe had gasped in apprehension when Charles V of Spain had abdicated so he could prepare to meet his maker by retiring to a monastery…

Very few actors come within cooee of Lear but the attempt is part of the purpose of being alive for an actor of the first rank. It is an almost purely visceral role, this stubborn ox of a man who has no clue about his own heart and then has it shattered into a hundred thousand flaws.

George Orwell may have been right to say that Lear remains blind, that he never understands a thing. What we understand watching him, however, is the mystery of human pain that is embodied before our eyes.

We are confronted with the essence of the sorrow of the world in the starkest and most blazing poetry ever written.

The eyes of the courtiers would have been dazzled with tears that night in the long-ago court of the Stuart king, but they would have emerged into the night as high as kites.

They would have seen, by nightfall, a king blind, derided and destroyed. They would have seen the Brando of their time burn up the stage of the most glamorous theatre around in a royal command performance. They would also have known they were in the presence of a dramatic god. How they could not?

I wrote about the play — and about two other HSC texts, Billy Elliot and The Truman Show — on my personal blog in August 2006: see Maggie Thatcher as Goneril… There are some links there that may prove useful for HSC students.

In case sceptics are reading this, I hasten to mention that Lear and the two movies mentioned (good as they are) are not all in the same unit in the HSC, nor would I regard them as all being equal.

You may find an informal account of a performance I saw a few year ago at The Bard, a Rabbit, and Ninglun.

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Posted by on December 26, 2006 in English studies, HSC, Shakespeare, works/authors

 

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