me + King Lear, last night

KING LEAR by Shakespeare, , Writer – William Shakespeare, Director – Jonathan Munby, Designer – Paul Wills, Lighting Oliver Fenwick, The Duke Of Yorks Theatre, 2018, Credit: Johan Persson/

It has been a long time since I’d encountered Lear directly — during grad school, in the 90s, I had read A Thousand Acres and seen Ran, but I think I’ve only ever seen the play itself once, on stage, during undergrad, if memory serves. I got the ticket to this play back when I saw A Curious Incident — a freebie — but I really wanted to see it because of the opportunity to see Ian McKellen on stage. And because I’d be able to drink a beer in peace while watching. Priorities!

But I really slammed into it. 6:15 up, took dad to breakfast with his buddies, home, pills, caught up with email, started the washer, grading, started preparing for class, turned on the congressional hearings while working, resorted my notes on ancient Chinese civ, put some slides together, emptied the washer, lunch for dad. Into the car, drove to campus 50 mi while listening to the hearings, set up, lectured, shut down the room, back into the car to get home, 50 mi which I drove in a barely-legal 52 minutes, promising the universe to observe the speed limits next time, picked up dad, took him to Flower’s house. I got home and put a bowl of bean soup in the microwave but I was too busy answering phone messages to eat it and then I had to pick dad up from Flower’s house at 6:30. Fifteen minutes to do the transfer and give dad his pills, fifteen minutes to get to the cinema.

Obviously I was feeling too positive about how well everything was going, because Flower subjected me to the silent treatment. After we left, dad told me it was because he had only been able to go there for an hour. It’s true that he is usually there for three hours, but that relies on someone being able to take him there on T / TH, as I have to leave by 1 at the latest for campus, and he has expressed clearly that he doesn’t want to spend the entire afternoon there. I can usually pick him up at 7:30, but in order to get to the cinema by 7, it had to be 6:30 last night. I’d foreseen the problem. Unfortunately, his three buddies who usually give him rides are all away this week, fishing or elsewhere. Flower still drives, and I had asked her if she would be willing to pick him up and bring him back, but she told me clearly that she didn’t want to. I suggested I would make dinner for them both here, and she could come over here for dinner, but she rejected that possibility as well.

To be honest, this is a typical behavior for her. She doesn’t negotiate. If arrangements don’t suit her, even if she could compromise one thing to get what she wants, she won’t, and then she blames someone else (me). I feel a limited amount of guilt over this, as my life is now almost completely scheduled around dad’s needs and wants, and because five days a week we do exactly as he (and to the extent that his wishes reflect hers, she) wish, apart from appointments. My response to her silence, which is not to say anything or argue with her, goes into the category of “how my mother would expect me to behave,” and Flower has expressed pointed judgments about me before (even before dad’s stroke), but somehow last night it just hurt more. Maybe because I was chasing from pillar to post at high speeds. Or because I was so foolish as to think that I was actually managing.

I thought I had plenty of time to make it to the cinema, but between Flower’s anger and dad’s slowness (note to self: plan more time in future), I walked into the room precisely at 7:01. Fuming. I was unreasonably disappointed about not having time to get the beer, I think. I’d been talking in class about the arrival of Mahayana Buddhism into China, and the students were fascinated by the idea in the Four Noble Truths that eliminating desire would eliminate suffering. Aha, I thought. That’s your problem, Serv. You want a beer, you want to be liked and appreciated. Just let go of all of that and then you’ll stop suffering. But this is the problem — I feel like the search to detach completely from desires ends up leaving one cold or, at worst, creates the risk that one will act immorally. I’m a utilitarian at heart, and I want everyone to get as much of what they want as is manageable. But everyone has to include me.

So I was stewing as I started to watch the play.

McKellen is really stunning in this role. (And again I find myself thinking how much more scope a piece like this offers a master artist for a truly impressive performance than much of the stuff we see Armitage in — not that McKellen was ever bad as Gandalf, but as Lear he is masterful in a way that the unsubtlety of modern film storytelling can never admit or reflect.) McKellen plays the aging monarch so convincingly from my perspective of observing a different aging man at close range — even though it’s clear that it’s acting (not just because of the interview ahead of the play, but because we also see him carrying another actor in the final moments of the transmission). He really captures not just the physical mannerisms of senectitude, or its varying visible emotional states, its petulance, its childishness, its desire for a quixotic freedom that not even the young have — but also something on the bridge between these, a kind of erratic, changeable energy peculiar to the elderly that permeates his performance. I found myself wondering — given my own current questions about my father — whether McKellen thought Lear had the beginning stages of dementia. If so, he conveyed that subtly and perfectly. I also thought (collateral attraction) Sinead Cusack as Kent, Danny Webb as Gloucester (a role many fans covet for Armitage) and Anthony Howell as Albany were excellent, consummate Shakespeareans playing supportive roles in what is really Lear’s show. Lloyd Hutchinson as Fool lacked a lot of the energy I’d have expected; for me, the scenes where Lear and Fool are alone were disappointing and occasionally dragged. (Luke Thompson, who played Edgar here, might have been good in this role as well.) I read McKellen as more the type for dry, cerebral humor than for the sight gags occasionally built into this staging. But all in all I was grateful to see him in this play, and the company did a praiseworthy job of telling a complex story with (dare I say it?) too many similar characters to make it easy to keep them all straight.

McKellen’s interview broadcast before the transmission stressed that they weren’t making the play “about” anything, just presenting the story as it was. I agree that that is largely what they achieved, and modern dress and a few contemporary references did not distract from that end at all. Maybe that was good for me last night. In the mood I was in, I was unfairly sympathetic to Goneril and Regan. Taken at face value, who really wants her father’s hundred unruly knights living in her establishment for half the year? I could relate, even if I don’t have servants whose moods I need to consider.

The lack of a “theme” (this was definitely not Regietheater) meant that it was possible for me to entertain sympathy with the avaricious daughters for a time, but of course that is not what the play is about. So many of Shakespeare’s political plays are about the conflict between (waning) medieval and (emerging) early modern conceptions of governing, and Lear is no different; there’s also definitely a commentary on view here about rulers who spend too much time listening to sycophants (James cough) and come thus to ruin (even if the Trump parallel McKellen mentioned is quite strained). And one about fathers who misread their children (King Lear / Cordelia; Gloucester / Edgar) and the circumstances of their misreading that gnawed at me for most of the evening, given earlier events of my day. How easily, in our pursuit of our desires, we misunderstand each other, and the misunderstandings in Lear are neither comic nor implausible. Last night they seemed very real to me, miscommunications in the rut of daily relationships that rub along and then get twisted when someone’s either not rational or just not paying attention. I was sympathetic to the problems of the powerless but faithful child. And in the end — not forgetting the other events of the day — it was striking to me that every female character ended up dead. (Kent is a male in Shakespeare’s version.)

So I left the theater enlightened and reconciled with life. I felt like the play understood me, particularly in its scenes between Gloucester and Edgar. It probably helped that I got my beer at intermission. Dad was asleep at home after forgetting his last pill, but not so asleep that I couldn’t awaken him to swallow it.

Today we were back in the rut. It started with an argument — how could it be otherwise? — over something that dad and my brother and I had decided on Monday, but dad had forgotten. And then came news: Flower fell in her house this afternoon — and the update: Flower has broken her hip. If you know anything about elderly women and broken hips, you’re aware of what a horrible development this is. For her, apart from the health issues, this means she will get even less of what she wants and lose even more capacity to negotiate. This may be the beginning of her transition to assisted living. For her son and his family, it will mean even more potential for understanding or misunderstanding. I don’t know if or how dad will be arranged into her new schedule or how I will accommodate that.

But we will rub along, even those of us who are not much like Cordelia or Edgar.

~ by Servetus on September 29, 2018.

19 Responses to “me + King Lear, last night”

  1. broken hips in the elderly are quite frankly a nightmare


    • I knew the common wisdom but I spent a little time yesterday in our university’s medical research database — now I know how bad. I was slightly shocked (even though this is how my dissertation adviser’s mother died and she’s not the only case I now if). Flower has additional risk factors (smoker, osteoporosis). We are going to spend part of the day today making sure all of our floors are clear of things to trip on.


    • my father broke his hip and that was it. Post operative delirium (he had alzheimers) He never came out of the hospital and died three weeks later. It is common for the elderly, especially with dementia, to not last longer than six months because of the operation. I miss my Dad, he was a gentle and kind man.


      • I’m so sorry about your dad. I know my brother and sister and I are sunk if my dad passes first
        and luckily he has lost weight and is in good health bec he is my mom’s caregiver. We haven’t got a real plan in place for my mom and that keeps me up at night as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. My sister, brother and I fear the most that either or both our dad and mom will fall and break their hips. They have a two level house and the stairs are right by the front door but they are narrow and the potential to trip and fall is so high. We also fear who would know if something happened bec my mom sleeps most of the day if my dad fell she couldn’t call for help or phone my sister. Nightmare indeed.

    I’m glad you got away to see King Lear and you got your beer. Hope the weekend is quiet for you,


    • I never thought about what a huge problem our entry is until the stroke. It’s not narrow and it has railings but there are something like fourteen steps altogether.


      • Yeah the house was built in 1986 as their retirement home and there are like 12 or 23 steps but they are very narrow and I’ve tripped a few times and my mom used a walker and a cane and a disaster is waiting to happen. My mom slipped in the kitchen about three years ago and hurt her knee. She’s too old to have knee replacement surgery bec the post op is way too much for her to physically handle. She’s been a trouper about the knee. Does Flower have anybody come in to help her like a cleaning service or it’s just her and then she and your dad when he visits?


  3. I’d been talking in class about the arrival of Mahayana Buddhism into China, and the students were fascinated by the idea in the Four Noble Truths that eliminating desire would eliminate suffering. Aha, I thought. That’s your problem, Serv. You want a beer, you want to be liked and appreciated. Just let go of all of that and then you’ll stop suffering. But this is the problem — I feel like the search to detach completely from desires ends up leaving one cold or, at worst, creates the risk that one will act immorally. I’m a utilitarian at heart, and I want everyone to get as much of what they want as is manageable. But everyone has to include me.

    I’d be very interested in reading more about this, especially if you’ve written about it before. Desire as the source of suffering is the most life-changing truth I’ve learned in the past ten years, and has made it much easier for me to love the world.

    But it’s a tough one to communicate. Something Mark Twain apparently never said speaks to that: “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”


    • Hi, Rick — I have thought a lot about it but never written about it here — but I will definitely put it on my list of possible post topics. I agree that if one could consistently alienate desire, the world would be more personally bearable.


  4. Good to hear Ian McKellan was so good! Good luck on the Flower situation.


  5. Thanks for sharing Sir Ian’s performance with us. For me, he is mesmerizing in person. I had hoped to get to see this performance, but it just isn’t in the cards right now.

    I understand first-hand how a broken hip (in fact, two) creates devastating changes in an elderly woman’s life. My thoughts are with you as you navigate this emotional obstacle course.


    • I’ve been noticing with the NT Live broadcasts that the really popular ones or the ones with big names tend to repeat fairly often. Hopefully you can catch a rebroadcast.

      I appreciate the sympathy. I hadn’t anticipated this development. Of course it throws dad’s schedule on its head but it is much worse for her.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Glad you got to see King Lear — and of course got your beer finally! The little bits of pampering you can squeeze in are important, especially when you have so much to do for others. I hope Flower is able to bounce back and get back to her own home soon.

    I wonder if my having two sons was part of the reason that I was drawn more to those characters when I saw this. I did also notice just how much death there was in the play, although it hadn’t occurred to me that all the female characters were killed off. (Trying to catch up on blog reading.)


    • Thanks!

      I tend to notice when women die in Shakespeare as one of the primary themes of his work is political authority and one of the chief questions of the Elizabethan / Stuart period is whether female authority can be legitimate. This is a Stuart era play, and he seems to be commenting in part on the influence of sycophancy, but England ended up with a Stuart king of course because of Elizabeth’s childlessness. People were still asking themselves, even after her death, what female political authority meant, and of course at the end of the century in which this play premiered the Stuarts’ problems created severe challenges to hereditary authority in general.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] play awkward and not a little confusing. More potentially troubling is that (yet again — like McKellen’s Lear, like Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, like Norris’ Macbeth) this seems to be a Shakespeare […]


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