“King Lear” begins with a question, and it’s not particularly complex, topically at least: Which of the king’s three daughters loves him the most? The simplicity of this posit hardly reflects its fiery, and eventually deadly, outcome—we are talking about a Shakespearean tragedy after all. The devastating final act of the play is arguably one of the most tragic endings in all of Western literature, and yet there’s so much that leads to it; the steady unspooling of family loyalty, the deterioration of the king’s health.
Northern Arizona University’s Crooked Figure Theatre will stage “King Lear” at Lowell Observatory, under the night sky, while paying homage to all that comes before the fall, parsing issues of mental illness and feminism along the way.
“My job is to see the whole story arch, how we get from this very confident boastful king to this broken man that we see at the end,” said director Christina Gutierrez-Dennehy.
Now in its fourth year, Crooked Figure Theatre has staged the likes of “Henry V” and Marina Carr’s “Hecuba,” each production giving current and recently-graduated NAU students the opportunity to work alongside professional actors. Jed Hayes (Kent) and Tracey Mayer Hayes (Gloucester) are among the cast of professionals this year with Ben Alexander, associate professor of practice at NAU theater (who normally specializes in lighting, sound and special effects) playing the character of King Lear. Gutierrez-Dennehey is an assistant professor of theater and theater history.
“As a director, I’d been poking at the idea of doing ‘King Lear’ for a long time. The problem with ‘Lear’ is it’s this iconic play. That’s why I hadn’t done anything with it before. Am I doing justice to this story that has been so iconic?” she said. “Plus I’d seen so many versions and couldn’t find my way in.”
Then she saw a one-woman performance of the play in London. Glenda Jackson, recipient of rave reviews and sole actor in the piece, portrayed all the characters besides Lear as a voice in the king’s head. Gutierrez-Dennehey had found her way in.
The play, which is estimated to have been written between 1603 and 1606, is widely considered to be Shakespeare’s second greatest tragedy, just behind “Hamlet.” A long battle over kingdom and family, “King Lear” follows the aging monarch of Britain as he prepares to relinquish the throne and divide the kingdom among his three daughters. As a test, the daughters must prove to the king their love. Goneril and Regan profess their adoration for their father, profusely and dramatically. Cordelia, his youngest, refuses, however, unable to put her love into words and unwilling to overdraw simply for the acquisition of property. What follows is a push and pull of banishment, affairs and deceit as the sisters attempt to oust their father and he banishes his youngest to France.
Like Jackson’s performance, Crooked’s exploration of mental health revolves around the king.
“Lear makes a series of bad decisions and those bad decisions spawn this voice in his head that is his conscience berating him but it also splits his conscience. He can’t hold both love and evil in his brain and that he’s done something wrong fractures him in half,” Gutierrez-Dennehey said of Lear’s casting off of his youngest and favorite daughter. In exploring Lear’s tendencies, she said, questions of schizophrenia, depression and anxiety, and whether those could be applied to the king, came to the surface.
“With this play and character came a way to ask those questions of mental health with an old, old story,” Gutierrez Dennehey said.
Several theories about the mental health of Lear and mental illness in the play have peppered analysis pieces for years. Health professionals have even gone so far as to diagnose the monarch with senile dementia, mania, bi-polar disorder and delirium. But Crooked is not seeking to ascribe, rather to shed light on a discussion that is increasingly being lent the space for public discussion and recognition.
“I think we have a mental health crisis right now. I’ve been teaching college now for eight years, and every year I see more students struggling with anxiety and all kinds of things,” Gutierrez-Denney said. “It’s important to know those aren’t new questions or ideas. I mean, look at King Lear himself. We’ve had these issues since there were people, but it’s exciting to me that we’re starting to talk about them more and more.”
Director and ensemble alike are also approaching the play by way of a feminist reading. The king is a tyrant, surrounded by male figures and with a need to control his daughters. This is no anachronism, but it is being scrutinized more and more in recent years.
“I think that’s a new trend in producing ‘Lear,’ because 20 years ago in all the productions he was ‘the best king there was,’” Gutierrez-Dennehy said.
Lear is arrogant, tyrannical, malignant. Cordelia is one of the only characters to form and express any sort of criticism of and toward him.
“We as an American audience in the 21st century don’t give credence to the idea that just because Lear is king he’s always right,” Gutierrez-Dennehy said. “And that shift in perspective allows us to say he’s making mistakes and the women around him are telling him he’s making mistakes. And our shift in understanding on how powerful women can be allows us to read how much Lear hates women. There’s so much in the text about how he’s afraid of women, afraid of seeming feminine or womanish. We take issues with that in ways Shakespeare’s original audience wouldn’t have.”