Time yaps at the heels of comedy. Tragedy marches inexorably on. In comedy the present turns immediately to the past, this is why the pace must be fast. Private Lives tries to talk about serious things rapidly. It does not stop and consider. The past is a repetition of the future, not the other way around. This is why the characters circle endlessly. You might call it the rhythm of life, or in a darker comedy, the dance of death. There is plenty of life left in Private Lives. Its relentless wit continues to charm. The couple who fight best seem to love best. Only fine actors can repeat themselves. Shakespeare and Company’s production of Noel Coward’s play had the requisite energy. David Joseph, in particular, seemed inexhaustible, time yapping at his heels. Dana Harrison also commanded the speed and flavor of imperious time, sometimes by trying to slow it ever so slightly.
Never have I seen the price of forgiveness so costly on stage as in Olympia Dukakis’s singular, and singularly moving Prospera with Shakespeare and Company. Try to find Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” and look carefully at the hands of the patriarch, large hands fully outspread, each finger more generous than the other, pressing on the back of the wayward son with a touch the painting tells us the weight of. This is radical forgiveness, almost a blank forgiveness. It is nearly immoral in its extremity of love, as the Prodigal’s brother tells us. This is the near opposite of what I saw in Ms. Dukakis’s performance. Hers was an assumption of the role which was drenched, sometimes even drowning, in resentment. She played these emotions fundamentally, but I saw them more clearly in her efforts to be gentle. I’m thinking now of the scene between Prospera and Miranda near the beginning of the play which was like no other performance I have seen. It was slow, way slow, but Ms. Dukakis is the mistress of time.
This impressive production of King Lear presents something of a challenge to the reviewer. The usual procedure of praising the direction, the sets, the costumes, and the acting—all of which deserve high praise—somehow misses the point. Of course, I found the show gripping, and I gained some important insights into the play, but I think what is unique in this production is the process through which the artists created it and the effect this has on what the audience experiences on stage. Of course I wasn’t there during the rehearsals. I can only extrapolate from what I saw and heard, both in the theater and in a few brief conversations with some members of the cast…and blessings on Shakespeare & Company for making these informal chats possible.
Dr. Johnson famously refused to re-read the play for some years, remarking that it “did not keep faith with the chronicles” referring, I suppose, to an older play on the same subject. Shakespeare’s alterations were radical. Cordelia’s death is the issue. Nahum Tate saves her, and his version ruled the English stage for decades. These days it is either the bleak version where all hope is banished, or what critics quaintly call the Christianizing version. Like today’s pols, it’s one or the other; the middle lies empty. But there is a middle, very possibly a transcendent one. We have already seen the end of Shakespeare’s Lear twice, first in Pericles, and then The Winter’s Tale. Check the Quarto text of King Lear and you will read that music is called for in the awakening scene of Act 4 – just as Paulina does in the corresponding place in Winter’s Tale. Is there a chance the playwright is out to show that Lear’s so-called hallucinations in his final moments are true vision? This is not bringing a statue back to life – a statue that never died. This is seeing a dead person in a new life. Was this a deliberate challenge the playwright set himself – nothing less than all from nothing? Can we believe it? Was the dying King Lear the only one with the ears to hear? And finally the eyes to see? Is his own awakening scene a dress rehearsal for the promised end? Why are we so willing to deny Lear’s seeing? He himself tests it, puts the glass up to her nostrils. He despairs, but this is not the finality. The finality is open. “It is required you do awake your faith,” as Paulina says in Winters Tale. Pace Dr. Johnson, maybe the old faith is kept, just not shown – forcing the imagination still further, the way that music brings us to the edge of the thing and we hear it in the silence after. Kelly Galvin’s Cordelia made us hear this every time she spoke, gave us an assurance of it. Her speaking was partner to her silence.
I just drove past Steven’s little house. The front drapes were heavy — closed, a little open between. I thought of Cordelia, early in the play, how her mouth must have been a little open, waiting for the words to come. Sisters had eaten all the words, devoured the supply. Then I thought of the supernatural hearing Lear has at the end of the play. How in the recognition scene he sees his daughter again for the first time. Their world is washed. This second Cordelia speaks directly, tersely, with no hesitation. Even at the end when she is dead and truly silent, Lear sees the life in her. He commands others to see. He hears her too. Like Steven’s, her voice was ever soft and low. The others will not hear. Blind and deaf as we are, we side with them. Skeptical is cool. But Lear more than insists that he sees and hears. He commands others to see and hear. There is always the sense that a silent Steven is the hardest thing. Like something has eaten his words. Silence is also the fullest thing. No-one knows this better than a musician.
It could be a tough crowd, but it isn’t. It could be a dull crowd, but it isn’t. It could be an old crowd, but it isn’t. What it is is noisy, what it does is participate. What it feels is true. They carried King Lear out on a cot-like device, and she was dressed in white. She was sleeping…the sleep of the blessed, the first fruits of them that slept. At her side a diminutive girl made a piping Cordelia. There was an immediate hush, the wild beasts were stilled. We heard the words we have heard so many times coming out of adult mouths with adult ideas behind them: “We too will sing like birds in the cage…” This time it had enough simplicity. This time in spite of all the incongruities, it was real. There are a lot of swordfights. The text may be rearranged inelegantly, but as I heard Roger Rees say once, “Some of the best Shakespeare I have seen came from American high school kids.” Girls may be boys, boys may be girls. The young may be old and then young again. This is what Shakespeare did, isn’t it?