How, how, how?King Lear: an Exploration of the Text at the University of Poitiers

Par Charles Holdefer
Publication en ligne le 28 janvier 2010

1 Performing King Lear is daunting for professionals, and such is its reputation that amateurs often fear to go anywhere near it, opting instead for yet another version (oh no! not again!) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the recent conference in Poitiers devoted to Lear, however, local teachers and students offered a spirited and judicious reading of scenes, directed by Graeme Watson, which engaged and entertained the audience on a performance space slightly bigger than a postage stamp, and with a production budget that probably cost less.

2 How does one stage scenes without—ahem—a stage?

3 How does one choose the scenes?

4 How can a reader create the illusion of a character?

5 For staging, Watson embraces a can-do approach that descends straight from the source. Like the chorus in Henry V, who invites the audience to imagine “the vasty fields of France” in a “cockpit”, Watson, as master of ceremonies, introduces each scene with entertaining appeals to his audience to see the far corners of Lear’s kingdom on a French university conference room carpet. The premise of a G-8 summit for the division of the realm works well, and the background visuals sometimes offer more than simple narrative support and put forward allusive interpretations in their own right: for instance, the use of an eye chart, and the art of Edouard Lekston.

6 For the choice of scenes, a straightforward chronology is privileged, and the dramatic arc of the story is respected. This means reading some of the most difficult scenes in the play. It might have been tempting to avoid, say, the storm sequence or the death of Cordelia and replace it with some banter between Lear and the Fool. But this production doesn’t make that concession, and puts its performers to a sterner test.

7 How can a reader create the illusion of a character? It isn’t easy, because reading on stage creates a powerful sort of distancing, but this obstacle can be overcome, once the audience becomes accustomed to the convention. Gilles Menegaldo’s Lear hits a convincing note of despair when, with head in hands, he cries, “I gave you all!” Peggy Canon slyly conveys Edmund’s edgy menace, and Douglas Diani conjures up Gloucester’s dignity even amid gore. Susan Trouvé’s Goneril shows claws when she reproaches the Duke of Albany’s “mew”, and Pascale Drouet—who, in addition to her roles as the Fool and Cordelia, was the organizer of this Lear conference and the general producer behind this reading—achieves pathos when, as Cordelia, she reassures her father that there is “no cause, no cause.” Lastly, Graeme Watson’s Mad Tom steps out of the reading formula altogether and goes for straight theatre, and quite successfully, too: his Tom is genuinely creepy and unsettling.

8 All in all, this performance offered a refreshing change in an academic setting. It was more than a diversion, too, in demonstrating the complexity of text and performance. Commentaries and dissertations will help French students see certain things, but if such exercises are all they know of Shakespeare, one might as well tell them to smell their way to Dover. This dramatic reading gives them much more.

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Par Charles Holdefer, «How, how, how?King Lear: an Exploration of the Text at the University of Poitiers», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Autour de Shakespeare - Espace libre, L'Oeil du Spectateur, N°1 - Saison 2008-2009, mis à jour le : 30/04/2010, URL :

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Charles Holdefer is a Maître de Conférences at the University of Poitiers. His recent work includes a novel, The Contractor (2007), and hewas co-editor with Andrew McKeown of Philip Larkin and the Poetics of Resistance (2006). His fiction and criticism have appeared in The New England Review, The North American Review , and World Literature Today. New work on "mind rhyme" in poetry will appear in 2009 in The Antioch Review.