Review: THE HISTORY OF KING LEAR - A Glorious Achievement

By: Nov. 11, 2015

THE HISTORY OF KING LEAR, as revised by Nahum Tate, produced by The Hidden Room is an absolutely brilliant piece of theatre history and a glorious achievement by a dedicated troupe of actors and academics. Often referred to by teachers as 'happy ending KING LEAR'; it's a play often dismissed as sacrilege by students of theatre. It may be shocking to the modern audience that it's this altered version of Shakespeare's iconic tragedy that was the standard for nearly a century and a half following its debut in 1681. Hidden Room's presentation of this obscure play is outstanding in concept and execution. Adding the element of Restoration acting gestures to the historical performance is the proverbial icing on the sumptuous cake.
The story of KING LEAR is an old one; even in the time of Shakespeare it was an ancient tale. Scholars believe that the Bard borrowed the story, as he often did, from Geoffrey of Monmouth's HISTORIA REGUM BRITANNIAE. Other likely inspirations for William may have been Philip Sidney's ARCADIA and Edmund Spenser's FAERIE QUEENE. Shakespeare's masterwork is thought to have been written in late 1605. It was a play born into a turbulent and dark political climate given the Gunpowder Plot that occurred in November of that year. With the deposition and death of a reigning monarch featured, one could imagine that KING LEAR was a touchy subject when it first played in 1606. As with several of Shakespeare's texts, we know that it was revised from the original and there is a version from 1623 compiled by his friends after his death in 1616. Considered by generations to be the ultimate tragedy, KING LEAR contains memorable characters, unbearable deaths and a tragic plot to make it one of the most beloved plays in history. In the intervening seventy-five years between Shakespeare and Tate, many things changed in both the real and the theatrical worlds. The English people, weary of war, death and destruction, were looking for a 'kinder, gentler' life and Nahum Tate obliged by revising the play to suit Restoration sensibilities. The target audience changed also. Tate was writing for an economically and socially elite crowd who craved beauty above all else, whereas Shakespeare wrote for royalty as well as the 'groundlings' who paid a penny for standing room at the Globe Theatre. Gone are the tragic deaths of the king and Cordelia, in their place a fairy tale ending worthy of Walt Disney. The surprise is that Tate's play supplanted Shakespeare's full text in performance until famous actor Edmund Kean demanded the original version be restored in 1823. Kean had previously acted Tate's Lear, but told his wife that the London audience "have no notion of what I can do till they see me over the dead body of Cordelia." Once audiences saw the original KING LEAR, Tate's play fell out of favor and wasn't performed for a century. Thankfully for us, The Hidden Room has a knack for the unusual and their complete dedication to their concept is a beautiful gift to the audience.
The York Rite Masonic Hall at 311 West 7th Street seems like an unusual performance space for such a presentational play, but the show was staged to perfection. Played in 'tennis court' style with the audience on two sides of the stage, we feel sent back in time to a courtly performance or one performed in a Georgian assembly hall. The gilded room, secret exits and raised platforms at either end of the room add another level of believability to the endeavor. At first the actors' use of dramatic gestures is a bit disconcerting, but it's soon apparent that the practiced and well researched acting style is as beautiful as it is entertaining. The actors perform a delicate but physical ballet that is mesmerizing and transportive. In essence they not only perform the characters in the play, but also portray Restoration actors playing the characters. Every step, tilt of the head and movement of a little finger is calculated and is steeped in meaning. The entire company is perfection in motion and so uniformly excellent in their performance, it's impossible to mark anyone as a true standout. Credit should go to Director Beth Burns and her team of researchers who outdid themselves with flawless execution. If the goal was to breathe life into a long forgotten play, presenting it to the audience in an historically accurate style, everyone exceeded expectation and created an unforgettable work of art that is transportive and exhilarating. The costuming is fantastic, every actor fitted well and resplendently in period garb. Even the shoes and wigs are exceptional in quality and adherence to the theme. Everyone involved in the production should be proud of their accomplishment.
Make plans to see THE HISTORY OF KING LEAR, it is a show you will hear on the lips of every theatre lover in the area for years to come, a one of a kind experience not to be missed.

THE HISTORY OF KING LEAR as revised by Nahum Tate
Hidden Room Theatre, York Rite Masonic Hall, 311 W. 7th Street, Austin
RUNNING TIME: 180 minutes including one intermission.
PERFORMANCES: Friday and Saturday at 8:00PM, Sundays at 5:00PM every weekend in November. Special Industry Night November 12.
TICKETS: $20.00 to $30.00

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