Friday, April 26, 2019

The Time's Plague

Last night I finally saw Sam Gold's production of King Lear starring theatre legend Glenda Jackson. One might think that the defining issue of this production would be the casting of a female Lear, but that was not the case. Not by a long shot.

Sure, Jackson is undeniably female in appearance, as is Jayne Houdyshell, who plays the Earl of Gloucester. However, both characters wear male attire and are referred to as "he" throughout the piece. Similarly, the Fool is played by Ruth Wilson, who also portrays Cordelia, but in all three cases we quickly accept the characters as male, regardless of voice or appearance.

No, Sam Gold, who has caused previous stirs on Broadway directing such plays as Fun Home and A Doll's House, Part 2, has made gender-bending one of the less remarkable aspects of this production. Perhaps the most remarkable, for good or ill, surrounds the use of Russell Harvard to play the Duke of Cornwall as deaf, with Michael Arden playing the "Aide to Cornwall" who serves as an interpreter, providing sign language for the Duke and translating the Duke's signing into spoken English.

Notice that the Aide is interpreting for the Duke, not for the audience. While many shows these days offer interpreted performances for the deaf and advertise them on their websites, that does not seem to be the case with King Lear. If the production does offer interpreted performances, the producers seem to have kept them a secret. And what a great opportunity that could have been! Deaf audience members could have come to see King Lear with a deaf performer playing Cornwall and with much of the dialogue interpreted from the center of the stage, not just from one or two interpreters at the edge of the action.

Instead of providing accessibility for the deaf, the Broadway production provides the illusion of accessibility, and all for the benefit of hearing audiences who get to pat themselves on the back and imagine themselves as open-minded and inclusive while they are actually continuing to shut out deaf audience members. At worst, the casting of Harvard (an actor who according to his Wikipedia biography has residual hearing but identifies as deaf) has uncomfortable echoes of staging practices in Shakespeare's own time of using physically or mentally disabled performers for the entertainment of "normal" audiences.

Readers of this blog know I have little patience for theatre artists who trumpet their own horn about accessibility while hypocritically producing ridiculously inaccessible pieces of garbage. If producers want to truly put on shows accessible for the deaf, we know how to do it. A beautiful example of such a show was the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, which not only had Harvard in the cast, but was actually directed by Arden, who plays Cornwall's Aide in King Lear. Clearly, these two champions of inclusive theatre were on board with Gold's concept, but then why couldn't the producers have made the performances accessible to deaf audiences--at least at select shows they could have advertised on the play's website?

While still inaccessible for deaf audiences, the performance was arguably made accessible for a deaf actor, but that position is rendered ridiculous by the fact that Harvard also plays the minor role of Curan (though he is not credited as such) and in that role vocalizes his lines without a trace of an accent. (The same could not be said of Cornwall's wife Regan, played by Irish actress Aisling O'Sullivan, whose accent was nearly unintelligible to my American ears.) Harvard is talented enough that he could have appeared on stage as Cornwall, speaking all of his lines and never needing a translator. Thus, the use of signing had nothing to do with accessibility in this case, and everything to do with creating a spectacle for hearing audiences.

Now that we have dispensed with the idea that the use of signing had the slightest thing to do with accessibility (unless there were some secret, unadvertised performances that provided additional interpretation for deaf audience members) we can proceed to judge it as spectacle. Though the production appears to have completely shunned actual deaf audience members, was its appropriation of deaf culture for a hearing audience at least dramatically effective? The answer is--for the most part--yes, it was. Shakespeare fans know that Cornwall has a loyal servant who refuses to stand idly by while the Duke blinds the Earl of Gloucester, and with the Aide's presence in every scene involving Cornwall, it was not difficult to guess who that loyal servant would be.

My big reservation artistically involves Harvard's dual role as Cornwall and Curan. There were plenty of people in the ensemble who could have played that minor role, but instead Harvard played it, seemingly in the exact same costume, only instead of wearing the kilt he wore as Cornwall, wearing trousers as Curan. Presumably, the audience was supposed to know that he was a different character because he wasn't signing and wasn't in a kilt, but the rest of his costume was the same, and Harvard's beard makes him unmistakable.

Later, when Cornwall is angry, he does vocalize some lines, but with a heavy accent that emphasizes the character's deafness. After he dispatches his Aide, he vocalizes many if not all of his lines. (This is again done for the audience. The production has already established that Cornwall's wife is fluent in sign language.) While his first few vocalized lines come out as impassioned roars, by the end of the scene, he seems to have dropped his accent entirely and is speaking quite clearly, in spite of the character having just received a mortal wound.

Overall, the concept could have worked, but Gold's direction muddies it. I felt the same way about the doubling of Cordelia and the Fool. Many Shakespeare scholars believe these two parts were written to be performed by the same actor, so the double casting makes sense. However, Gold's staging then implies that the Fool is actually Cordelia in disguise... or is he? The production seems to want to have it both ways, just like it wants to appear to be inclusive of deaf audiences even while it rejects their actual presence.

While I have mixed feelings about Wilson's Cordelia, her Fool was to me the heart and soul of the show. It is the job of the Fool to point out the obvious, and Wilson's Fool pointed out the parallels of a story about a mad king with power-crazed yet incompetent hangers-on and our country's present political situation. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Prophesy of Merlin:

     When usurers tell their gold i' th' field,
     And bawds and whores do churches build,
     Then shall the realm of Albion
     Come to great confusion...

This production substitutes "this realm" for "the realm of Albion" with a special allusion to the Stars and Stripes, as if we needed it. As Gloucester says, "'Tis the time's plague when madmen lead the blind."