Enters, Valda

The Queen Elizabeth Hall is not overcrowded, quite the opposite. Mostly dancers, friends of the performing arts, non-Londoners. The sunny blue sky kept many others in the outer space of the Southbank Centre, despite the unmissable presence — on one date only, of a contemporary dance icon. The beautiful 84 years old Valda Setterfield. Each wrinkle, a story. From Merce Cunningham, to Woody Allen. Presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017, her Lear is recent, though not new, and entered fast in the female interpretations’ history to settle quite high in terms of appreciation.

John Scott’s choreographic direction for the Irish Modern Dance Theatre, ‘minimilizes’ the plot, focusing on the relationship between Valda/Lear and her progeniture ‘beyond-gender’. There’s an across-the-board performative linguistics in action here, defining a peculiar theatre-dance made of both speech, and athleticism. Some white prints of Shakespearean fragments are set on the black backdrop, floating around a rectangular map — perhaps a realm to be split, most likely the disordered thoughts of an old lady.

Enters Valda, from the right side of the stage, a pace as much assertive as it is possible, a white paper crown on her head, house dresses. She begins to contemplate it, her inner land. She strolls on a white floor cloth, and seems to be pondering with her whole body. She stops before long, face to the audience, and she entrusts the search of a meaning she struggles to find, to some delicate tai-chi postures. Some ‘sharp’, acute notes deepen her confusion, and shadows too, come to wear further any attempt to reach a cognitive order.

Enter Regan/Mufutau, Goneril/Konan, Cordelia/Kevin, and through an increasingly rapid promenade the daughters/dancers come to complicate the above endeavour even more. Some sort of ‘chorus of the derangement’ words out loud Valda’s/Lear’s mind: ‘kingdom’, ‘royal’, ‘degree’, ‘sisters’, ‘loyalty’, ‘condition’. There’s one, however, that prevails over the others: ‘consideration’. It is the core of the relational topic, transcending any parental, or delusional, bond to open up a reflection upon the need(s) of ‘the other’.

They all search for a settlement, but it ends up being just a run, wearing and scant. The throne is a wheelchair. From a golden bag, sparkling with precious gems, Valda shares sweets with ‘the little girls’, and the audience too. The ‘affectionate depositions’ are almost acrobatic figures, a pantomime evoking a kiss on the hand, a who-is-jumping-higher game. Shakespeare is read ‘as scripted’, but the music/noise is more and more deafening. Valda/Lear has by now lost her (self) power.

It is interesting to note how this project relates to the plot suspending it as in about re-entering choir-room: Valda returning to be Valda, acting as director, especially when it comes to the interaction with Cordelia. The latter very much confused too, not just because of what Shakespeare compels her to state on stage as an actor, but also because she is French!, and cannot understand all these stories of English kings and queens… The exile is hilarious, almost en travestie… Literally rolled out of the stage, she exits singing ‘Allez venez, Milord…’

The blood feud between Regan and Goneril follows a similar evolution: from a parade of fools with flowery helmets all around the old lady, who can just spend her days begging for attentions on the phone — much more as a lucid Yiddishe Mame than as a Lear, up to a second rehearsal intermezzo. The comedy mood does not last much, though, as a physiological resentment, almost a repulsion, about an old mother’s ‘neediness’, murders by nature any filial love — ‘You are old!’.

So this is how ’The Tempest’ in this Lear goes also through a consideration of Valda on herself, perhaps as an agée dancer: ‘This is not Lear, who is it who can tell me who I am?’. The light turns into lunar, then blue. Blowing winds, in Lear’s mind, and all of the fragments of her inner land are scattered on stage, up to the dramatic reconciliation with Cordelia. That is, a needed sacrifice in order to accept the need(s) of the other.

Madness is the ultimate land of forgiveness. Daughter-mother and mother-daughter searching for a lullaby to be recovered among ancient memories, some lyrics of poetical imageries so to let go of power, family, worldly folly. Then, the peace of mind, the ending sweetness of an extremely caring, and moving gesture: Valda/Lear wrapped up as in a cocoon with the remains of her cloth/map. To fall asleep, maybe.

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A Ginger English King

Something queerly melancholic defines to me the overall mood of Brighton. Those days in particular, when the seagulls yell, protesting under a grey sky because soon it will be raining. Perhaps it is a matter of the ocean’s dim waters, and those ancient white ‘walls of land’, both establishing some sort of distance; one ‘borderland channel’, historically insurmountable, while now badge of fears and uncertainties: ‘will the B-thing happen?’ — everyone has the question floating in their mind, even if anyone talks about it any more.

Possibly nothing is more appropriate than this state of mind, to approach one of the mostly ‘inner life’ packed Shakespearean tales — the not meaningless rumination of a ginger, and very English king; in the purest devotion to that white, green, and blue land that feels like relentlessly distancing from any ideal border of the one who English is not: ’scepter’d isle’, ‘other Eden’, and ‘demi-paradise’, a ‘fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection’…

Fortunately, a change in spirit happens while getting closer to the actual location of this tiny little gem nestled in the Fringe of a rather hard to define festival — music, art, theatre, circus, dance, movies, literature… ‘too much’, some would say, slightly as some Brightonians are, locals and adopted ones, doing their best to overstate, ending up wearing out. The little jewel in question is an ‘off’ event: Puppet King Richard II is a Pocket Epics production, — and it really is a poem to be treasured in one’s pocket.

Conceived to be set in the space where it occurs, ‘The Cave at ONCA Gallery’, it is actually a one-man-show, impeccably managed by Gregory Gudgeon — yet RSC and other Shakespearean (and not) companies actor, assisted by a tiny bit of a clumsy Lucas Augustine, under the direction of the splendid Linda Marlowe (currently on stage in London), whose touch can be perceived in the almost fashion choices of the colours, echoing Vivienne Westwood’s punk.

The audience awaits for a while at the ground floor of the gallery, — white paper rolls, and coal chalks, to be then invited to descend underground, in a courtyard/cellar. The number of 26 seats makes of the performance an intimate experience, and despite the restricted dimensions, an incredible perspective discloses to the observer through a sequence of small antrums, setting up more of a devotional crypt, than a prison.

The ‘hollow crown’ hangs close to the heraldic seal — a chained deer, strangled almost with the ‘royal garland’. Genuflected at an altar face to the spectators, Richard entertains as a puppeteer in a childlike manner, while fully conscious that his own fate will held betrayal and death. His own toys are rudimentary tools, such as wooden spoons, and a shoe horn, but also real puppets — carved with unbelievable similarity to the real actor, and director by Jitka Davìdkova and Brigitte Dörner, Czech animation and 1960’s kids TV inspired.

Dressed up in a purple shell suit, white chalk on his face — not in a clownish way, though, black gloves, this virtuous improviser directs the action of the betrayal itself — alternating accents, horses hooves, air planes, and the diminishing of his own stature as a king. An invisible mirror, which will manifest just at the very end, is the real ‘transferal’ motif of a power which is imperceptible itself: the more Richard becomes smaller, the more Henry acquires in matter; black, and red, helped by vultures that would recall the ones of Disney’s Robin Hood, wouldn’t it be for a Hitlerian ‘Ride of the Valkyries’.

Nothing from the plot is spared; and the intimacy with the audience turns into something even more persuasive in the ‘second half’, when the 26 chairs are no longer frontally aligned, but disposed against the walls as in a rectangular House of Lords, all accomplices of the betrayal. Black and red are about to kill purple and ginger, so that when the stab comes, and the poetic ‘ascension’ happens, a deep melancholy takes all back to reality. The seagulls too.

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KRII Welsh Captain

Pocket Epics Master