A rather embarrassing fact is this: I am none too familiar with King Lear. I have neither read nor seen it. This is a worrying admission, akin to a doctor cheerfully announcing he hasn’t quite mastered the stethoscope. The thought of attending this production sent me into a sort of fraught despair. Would the audience realise I was a fraud? Worse, would the actors? Would I be asked to leave or subjected to a horrifying Shakespearean pop quiz? There was frantic Wikipediaing. As this Pan-Pan production focuses on the relationship between father and daughter, I decided to ring my own father and demand from him a full plot synopsis. He made some thinly veiled comment about daughters wanting money and hung up on me in favour of watching golf. As this Pan-Pan deconstruction is essentially about madness, I somehow found myself in the right frame of mind.
Transported to modern-day Dublin and trapped in an airless suburb, Andrew Bennett’s Lear is forced to live out his days in a Plexiglas cage. Alone for company, except for a pet mouse and visits from his daughter/carer Judith Roddy, Lear clutches at the corners of his sanity and tries, but often fails, to retain his grip on reality. What results is a series of disturbing vignettes. Lear dancing to the Velvet Underground. Lear and Cordelia getting stoned and watching Spongebob. A visitor performing Electro Shock Therapy on himself. Cordelia changing the helpless and infantile Lear’s nappy. The pointed allusion of a number of GAA hurling finals. You feel it must all amount to something, the DVD titles on the shelves, including Kung-Fu Panda, must fit into some larger frame of reference. In transforming King Lear from something ‘cheerless, dark and deadly’ into a comment on the relationship between a carer and a family member, a large degree of substance seems lost. This is not a play but a meta-theatrical reworking of a play. Indeed, any kind of emotional resonance is abandoned in favour of high-minded intellectualism. In many ways it works best when it aims for the head but hits the heart-when Cordelia helps her ailing father, when it presses upon us how people living in such close quarters can destroy each other. Lear tells us “human kind can’t bear very much reality”, but Pan-Pan do not propose an alternative. For me, this reworking is too knowledgeable, too caught up with its own cleverness, and, ultimately, too cerebral to be fully engaging.
Saying that, Andrew Bennett delivers a tremendous performance, humble, rigorous and endlessly flexible, both physically and imaginatively. Aedin Cosgrave’s set never disappoints, eliciting loud ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ from a usually quiet and reserved audience. Pan-Pan are one of Ireland’s best theatre companies, constantly renegotiating the space between the audience and the performer, whilst never losing sight of the ridiculous and the absurd. Everyone is King Lear in his own Home may not be for everyone but let’s hope they never stop redecorating and reupholstering well-loved texts. Nothing will come of nothing, after all.