King Lear

William Shakespeare, adapted by Vladimir Shcherban
Belarus Free Theatre
The Young Vic

Aleh Sidorchyk as King Lear in the storm Credit: Georgie Weedon
Lear swinging Goneril and Regan Credit: Georgie Weedon
Yana Rusakevich as Goneril and Aleh Sidorchyk as King Lear Credit: Georgie Weedon

Anyone watching the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) adaptation of King Lear at the Young Vic would in the first minutes be forgiven for thinking they had walked into the wrong play.

One man is peeling potatoes, another sits in a wheelchair and a third who is rolling himself about on a trolley resembles a disabled war veteran from a Weimar picture by the artist George Grotz. Into this scene, a strange character in a huge wig pushes onto the stage a pram laden with soil and a bag of tin cans. The character who throws off his wig laughing is Lear (Aleh Sidorchyk).

This is a very unconventional King Lear. It is as if a renegade troupe of cabaret artists stole into the Young Vic to riotously hold a party and call it Shakespeare. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that on 5 November, the London Metropolitan Police sent a crowd of officers to another of the BFT shows to demand they prove they were performers rather than protesters trying to mount an illegal outrage against the government. Fortunately the police left them free to entertain us with their fast-moving, visually inventive style.

This production is the story of a clash of generations, with parents pitched against children. Gloucester beats his son Edmund with a thick leather belt. Lear hits his daughter Cordelia in the face causing her nose to bleed. When his daughters Regan and Goneril clasp their hands round him, he begins to swing them round dangerously fast.

This Lear is a rough, violent joker whose generosity comes with threats, who is happy to see others bullied and is ready to banish or even kill those who sufficiently bother him. When Cordelia displeases him, he hands her over against her wishes to the extremely old King of France.

The manner of Lear’s initial entry onto the stage is meant to be a practical joke on his court. The division of the kingdom which follows seems simply a cruel extension of this. His three daughters sing and dance for him.

The two daughters who please Lear lift their skirts to receive dirt from the pram representing the division of the kingdom he is giving them. This they hold to their stomachs as if it were a pregnant womb. It all seems to be part of a regular ritual everyone is expected to enjoy. That is until Cordelia irritates Lear.

Belarus Free Theatre constantly searches for visual ways of emphasising the action and meaning of the story. Lear gives emphasise to his words at one point by lining eggs up on the ground, smashing each in turn as if it was the plans of those who displease him. Instead of the often distracting noise of a storm when Lear speaks on the heath, we get him placed in the centre of a huge thick blue plastic sheet shaken by the cast.

Later a thick red plastic sheet brought on to a marching song is used to cover the clashing armies of England and France. The battle ends with legs and arms of the dead protruding in odd angles from the sea of red. The play closes with the dead Cordelia being wheeled on in the pram that began the disintegration of his kingdom.

Some things are cut to make way for the additions of song, dance and even whole scenes such as the onstage hanging of Cordelia. It was unfortunate that one such cut was the character of the first servant to Cornwall who bravely tries to stop his master inflicting more damage on the old Gloucester. It is a moment every tyrant fears when their servants enter history and their power fails.

Nevertheless, this lively adaptation directed by Vladimir Shcherban never falters for a second in being a highly watchable and entertaining show.

King Lear is part of a two-week festival of ten shows from the Belarus Free Theatre. All the shows in the festival are live-streamed and are available for two weeks to see free at the Ministry of Counterculture.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna