Shakespeare’s King Lear is an elderly king who decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. He asks them to declare their love for him, the best declaration gets the biggest iece. The elder two children do so, but the youngest refuses to play this game. Angrily, King Lear gives her share to her sisters and she leaves for France with her new husband. The remaining sisters immediately show their true natures and treat their father like an old man, and even planning to murder him. During this, Lear flees the house in a great storm and loses his mind.
The youngest daughter plans to invade the realm to help her father and defeat her sisters, but she is captures and sentenced to death. The other daughters then destroy each other in jealousy over the same man, with the one poisoning the other, and then killing herself when the man in question turns out to be fatally wounded. With his last breath, the man revokes the death sentence, but it is too late, the daughter is dead, and seeing her body, Lear dies as well.
Tom Lanoye wrote a modern interpretation of this play for the Toneelgroep Amsterdam. The story lines have been compressed a bit: Gloucester as a character has been removed and his part has been merged with Kent. The setting is now a modern day business in 2008 (just before the economic crisis), and King Lear is now Queen Lear, with the part written for (and with) Frieda Pittoors.
Elizabeth Lear is the CEO of Lear Inc. A world-spanning business at the top of its power, started by her father and further built up by her husband until his death. She rules with an iron hand but she is getting older, and as such has decided to split the business in threes, one part for each of her sons. At the board meeting she interrupts Kent (played by Gijs Scholten van Aschat), who wishes to celebrate recent acquisitions, and declares her intentions. She asks her eldest son Gregory (played by Roeland Fernhout) to declare his love for her. He is unprepared, and initially unwilling, but manages to spin a tale and gets his portfolio.
Then it’s Hendrik, or Henry’s turn (played by Jip van den Dool who I also saw in Mary Stuart back in December), he also manages to spin a tale and receives his portfolio. The youngest, Cornald (played by Alwin Pulinckx), however, refuses. He loves his mother, but he will not play this game. Elizabeth is furious. She gives his part to Hendrik to divide between him and Gregory and disowns Cornald. Kent, who has been her friend and adviser for years, tries to defend him, upon which she fires him, too. Mama Lear then decrees that she will live with each of the brothers for a month at a time with her entourage, starting with Gregory.
Cornald travels to Asia to make a name for himself in micro-finance, supported by Kent who has given him contacts to start with. Gregory and Henry divide the rest, and try to keep the business, well, in business. Henry is a true businessman, he knows what he’s doing, Gregory has less business sense, he’s more in it for the money. It’s not long before tragedy starts to strike. Cornald has little success in Asia, and is being extorted and threatened to give up the business secrets of Lear Inc. The dividing of the company has scared investors and stockholders and the stocks are plummeting. Gregory and Henry try within their ability, but they can’t turn the tide.
While this happens Queen Lear tries her best to stay relevant and on top of things, manipulating the people around her as she has always done. But things are changing. Her mind is slipping, she becomes forgetful and doesn’t always recognize people anymore. Alzheimer’s is getting its clutches into her. This is good for Kent, as this allows him to stick around and try to help her, and Cornald, for whom he has a soft spot.
Besides Kent there is also Oleg, Queen Lear personal assistant and caretaker. He’s a young immigrant from Eastern Europe who sends most of the money he makes back home to his mother. Because of that, he feels deeply for Queen Lear as she reminds him of his own mother. This is not explicitly said in the play, but we had the luck that the introduction to the play was an interview with Vanja Rukavina, who plays Oleg, which gave us some extra insight into his character and the relationship between him and Queen Lear.
As the business is going under, Queen Lear is forced to cull the number of servants. She protests heavily but both brothers will not budge. Oleg calls his mother to tell her that he will not be able to send more money as the business is not doing well. We can’t understand this, as the conversation is in Bosnian, but Rukavina lifted the veil on that for those who were at the introduction 🙂
After the call, Queen Lear comes in, dejected, angry, confused, and in need of kindness and love. Her underlying attraction to Oleg comes to the surface and she tries to seduce him. While unwilling at first, he eventually consents and they end up in bed together.
This scene was added at the specific request of Frieda Pittoors, who wanted to explore a relationship that is still often seen as taboo. Older men with young trophy wives or lovers are generally applauded for landing such a conquest, while an older woman with a young boyfriend or husband is seen as weird.
After another argument with her sons and their wives, Queen Lear runs out of the building, into a terrible storm. She wanders around, lost, desolate and in the grip of her disease. She throws a monologue into the storm before she is found by Oleg who tries to take her home. They meet a homeless junk who she, in her delirium, mistakes for her youngest son Cornald (not quite coincidentally played by the same actor :D).
Eventually, Queen Lear is back home, still lost in her mind. Cornald has returned home, but she does not recognise him. The children fight over the downfall of the company. Henry has a plan to save what remains, Gregory is mostly on board, but Cornald disagrees. Kent is also present, still blinded from an earlier fight where Gregory attacked him. And so, with all present, tension mounts, drama unfolds and we move towards the inevitable tragedy of death, and a woman permanently lost in her own mind.
The play is a masterful adaptation of the original. The changes have made the story stronger, and relevant for current society. The actors are all quite good, but Frieda Pittoors knocks her part out of the park, she is fantastic. She manages to convey the loss of self through Alzheimer so very well.