Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear, performed in their native tongue Belarusian at the Globe, is a quirky, energetic and admirable follow-on to the recent fantastic Trash Cuisine at the Young Vic. They provide a similarly provocative, stripped-back take on this tragic tale of a power-crazed autocrat’s descent into madness and poverty, with some lessons learnt along the way.
Hailing from Europe’s last authoritarian state and a neighbour of Russia, the company invites us into a mob-ruled world. Lear postures in his leather trench coat and wields his metallic hand like Dr Claw, while the play’s themes of family betrayal readily stick to this world of fur coats, sex, money and power.
Unsurprisingly, the language is a factor of how much we enjoy this and what we get out of it, but for more curious and rewarding ways than expected. Watching Shakespeare normally (in English) can feel like too much to take in at once, and this reduction of the play to its bare bones — one man’s descent and spiritual redemption and the tragic fate of Cordelia – can feel a less exhausting experience. The focus on actions, and not words, provides simplicity.
It is wonderful to see Lear joyfully throw off his clothes in expression of his new found solidarity with the poor and homeless Edgar as Poor Tom. It is also moving to hear the softly spoken Belarusian words convey Lear’s loss of Cordelia at the end. But, on the downside, this is not a stage to really savour the beauty of a foreign language – actors’ words can get lost on the Globe stage unless they really project them — and we felt this did not happen, which might have robbed us of the enjoyment of the language. Some scenes where action relied on dialogue also left us feeling a bit lost.
But this is a clever, creative and sympathetic interpretation of Lear. You might have seen Lear a million times before, but probably not in Belarusian. The experience illuminates some of the most moving parts of this jagged and deeply human play.
King Lear is performed in Belarusian with some scene synopses in English. It runs until Saturday 28 September (times vary). Tickets: from £5 (groundlings) up to £32 (for gallery seats).
Londonist saw King Lear on a complimentary ticket.