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.