After their acclaimed stint at Globe to Globe last year, Belarus Free Theatre return to the venue for a short run of their production of King Lear, performed almost entirely in Belarusian. While a number of audience members look puzzled when the cast began performing in un-subtitled English, it only takes a scene or two to forget this is the case as the company bring an energy and passion to their performances that transcends speech – it’s pretty exciting to think that theatre can really be a universal language all its own.
And being heard – in any language at all – is important for this company, who’ve suffered everything from minor inconvenience to genuine injustice in their home country, under Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship. Indeed, two of the actors in this re-staging – amusingly, those playing the Fool and the King of France – are English-speaking, not through artistic choice, but because the company were forced to re-cast when two of their actors were ‘unable to travel to London.’
Aleh Sidorchyk’s Lear emanates power and strength, but from the beginning there is something disturbing, wrong about him, even before the madness. The songs with which his daughters sycophantically express their love for him are strangely erotic in nature; to thank them, he kisses them full on the mouth. This is quite a Through the Looking Glass production throughout, familiar but somehow different, the strangeness of it only adding to the strangeness of watching it in another language. After all, it’s already Shakespeare largely without Shakespeare, with all those famous speeches being, from an English-speaking audience member’s perspective at least, absent. That the cast generally manage to sustain the audience’s attention without the poetry is quite a feat.
But while the set-pieces are powerful and gripping, the wait between them can occasionally feel a little long; it’s a production that probably works best for those in the Yard, who are close to the action, rather than those sitting at the sides. Verbal nuances are harder to pick up on in a language which you don’t speak, so gesture and facial expression become central to the process, and those up close are likely to get the most out of this production. Dot matrix screens on each side of the stage give one-line synopses of important developments in each scene, but otherwise the performance is unfiltered.
The production is pacey and often quite fun, containing some truly inventive imagery. Their rendering of the storm scene is remarkable, and visually stunning, as is the merry dance which Goneril and Regan lead their father on, trying to make him give up his retinue of knights. The moment when he suddenly baulks, rebels and spins them about is actually pretty shocking, both in terms of his raw force and strength and their inability to do anything but cling on.
Told by these children of a dictatorship, Shakespeare’s tale of a King fighting to keep his grip on power, to keep from losing it to an offspring he has made as reprehensible as himself, has a special, unusual resonance. Their Lear is a complex, visceral piece of theatre, a skewed looking glass journey told by a company for whom voice and visibility, the ability to be seen and heard, remains all important.
Read the Exeunt interview with Belarus Free Theatre co-founder Natalia Kaliada.