Viktor Tremmel (Gregory), Franziska Junge (Connie), Lukas Rüppel (Hendrik), Verena Bukal (Alma), Owen Peter Read, and (foreground) Carina Zichner (Cornald), Josefin Platt (Elisabeth Lear) in Tom Lanoye’s Königin Lear, directed by Kay Voges at Schauspiel Frankfurt. Photo: Schauspiel Frankfurt | Birgit Hupfeld.
Volume 7

A Queen for a King! Tom Lanoye’s Königin Lear at Schauspiel Frankfurt

Flemish playwright Tom Lanoye has experience “overwriting” Shakespeare’s plays among other reworkings of classic works, first with a twelve-hour verse adaptation of eight of Shakespeare’s history plays entitled Ten Oorlog (To War) in 1997, then in 2014 with an adaptation of Hamlet (Hamlet vs Hamlet) starring actress Abke Haring in the title role. This time he took on King Lear, transforming it into Königin (Queen) Lear, with Frieda Pittoors, the grande dame of Dutch and Flemish theatre, as his inspiration. (She performed Lear in the 2015 Amsterdam premiere.) While updating the action to the heady world of high finance and playing fast and loose with the genders falls well within the purview of directorial decisions, Lanoye as adapter makes enough bolder choices in altering the dynamic of Shakespeare’s play to justify calling this a play in its own right.

Elisabeth Lear, fierce ruler of a large financial empire, has three sons: Gregory, the oldest; Hendrik, the second and weaker one; and Cornald, her beloved Benjamin. So far, so easy. While the relationship between the mother and her youngest son acquires a more Oedipal twist than in the original (naturally), it is the inclusion of the other sons’ wives, Connie (Gregory’s wife) and Alma (Hendrik’s), that expands the family dynamic. Whereas the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany are often relegated to the sidelines, Connie and Alma substantially contribute to the emotional maelstrom. King Lear isn’t bothered by his daughters’ spouses, but Elisabeth Lear loathes her daughters-in-law equally with the instinctive resentment a mother has for any woman in her sons’ lives. Though Connie has successfully produced two sons, she certainly is not perfect enough for her mother-in-law. Lanoye also chooses not to rewrite Lear’s famous rant against Goneril in I.iv, lifting it verbatim for Elisabeth Lear to hurl at the childless Alma. Another bold move is Lanoye’s conflation of the characters Kent and Gloucester, thereby removing the parallel plotline of Edgar and Edmund. Robert Kent, now Elisabeth Lear’s deceased husband’s best friend, is revealed to be the father of Elisabeth’s youngest son, and his emotional attachment to her is less that of a long-standing, loyal employee than of a lover with complicated feelings. It’s a lovely texture, and Kent is one of the most affecting characters in this rewrite, as he tries everything to save a family to whom he is fervently attached but that treats him with contempt. Lanoye succeeds in integrating Gloucester’s blinding by having Gregory attack Kent impulsively (versus the premeditated cruelty in King Lear); and when Cornald toward the end of the play realizes that Kent is his father, he leads him to the roof of the family’s high-rise, describing the view before letting him jump off a step.

Lanoye’s adaptation does, however, leave the inciting incident of King Lear intact: Elisabeth, wishing to divide her empire equally among her three sons, demands declarations of love and devotion, which Cornald withholds. She casts him out, and as her two older sons tear each other and their mother’s empire up by infighting, Cornald runs off to create a start-up with Kent’s help. Unlike Cordelia, who seems happy in her marriage to the King of France, Cornald does not succeed in business. He is not of his mother’s mettle, fails miserably, and returns in despair.

Lanoye also dispenses with the fool: This fool with his endless wordplay and moralizing pseudo-wisdom proves only that drama is forever but humor is not, the director explains in the program—a heretic comment bound to make Shakespeare purists gasp. I, however, happen to agree with him, and am delighted finally to have found a kindred soul who shares my sentiment that the fool is a pretentious know-it-all. Instead we get Oleg, Elisabeth Lear’s caretaker, a young foreigner, an immigrant of unknown status. Their relationship is one of mutual dependency—she represents money and shelter, he the one place her frailty can show. The intimacy of this uneasy bond is touching, even as Elisabeth tries to get Oleg to sleep with her, desperately clinging to her sense of self as a desirable woman. Oleg lets himself be swayed by a combination of lust and pity, and at the end of the play he seems to assume a more ominous power as the Lear family is destroyed.

King Lear is of course written in Elizabethan English, which today often needs helpful annotations. Tom Lanoye wrote Königin Lear in Dutch using primarily Shakespeare’s words, which he may have read and processed in the original language, or in a Dutch or Flemish translation. The production I saw was the first German-language presentation at the Schauspiel Frankfurt, which means I heard Lanoye’s script translated from Dutch to German (by Rainer Kersten). Shakespeare’s words were now layered with translations from English to Flemish/Dutch to German. Did the translator use German translations of King Lear for reference in his work? I’m intrigued by the notion of translation as layering of meaning, as we all are at this point aware that there is no such thing as “objective translation.” Sitting at the performance and listening, I wondered at times who I was really hearing when I recognized the Shakespeare “original” in German, or when I thought I caught a Lanoye addition. I believed I could hear a difference in quality—ah, the Bard had a way with words after all, which Lanoye can’t reach!—but it may be due to an uneven updated translation. As much as I would like to talk about the modules of text in Queen/Königin Lear, I’m afraid I’d run afoul of my own prejudices and tastes. That said, it’s an interesting question: After how many layerings does a text inevitably cease to be a translation? Would Königin Lear still qualify as one?

The production at the Schauspiel Frankfurt is in the fine tradition of German theatre, with its ambitions and clichés intact. The set is a constantly-moving projection design (video: Robi Voigt) of a gridded high-rise, emulating not only Elisabeth’s slipping grasp on reality but also the fragmentation of her empire, leaving her sons equally disoriented and powerless.

Josefin Platt (Elisabeth Lear) and Owen Peter Read (Oleg) in Tom Lanoye’s Königin Lear, directed by Kay Voges at Schauspiel Frankfurt. Photo: Schauspiel Frankfurt | Birgit Hupfeld.

Lanoye’s intention of having the action begin way up in the family’s high-rise, then slowly move down and outside into the maelstrom of the “real world” caught in a storm of natural catastrophe (environmental issues thrown in), isn’t realized in the Frankfurt production. It all stays within the grid-world, eschewing any trappings of naturalism. It’s amazing to watch, inspired by the Frankfurt skyline itself, moving in and out; but over time it tends to draw too much attention to itself and gets in the way of the story and the characters. Josefin Platt delivers a fine Elisabeth Lear: a very theatrical, borderline caricature of a steely, narcissistic matriarch, devolving into an equally dramatic puddle of hurt, self-pity, delusional rage, and final mortification as she cradles her dead baby, Cornald.

Viktor Tremmel (Gregory), Franziska Junge (Connie), Lukas Rüppel (Hendrik), Verena Bukal (Alma), Owen Peter Read, and (foreground) Carina Zichner (Cornald), Josefin Platt (Elisabeth Lear) in Tom Lanoye’s Königin Lear, directed by Kay Voges at Schauspiel Frankfurt. Photo: Schauspiel Frankfurt | Birgit Hupfeld.

The rest of the cast deftly surrounds the star of the show: Peter Schröder as Robert Kent, affecting in his helpless devotion to Elisabeth and the family; Viktor Tremmel and Lukas Rüppel, respectively, as the very different brothers Gregory and Hendrik; Franziska Junge as the headstrong Connie, and Verena Bukal as Alma, who clearly has learned to detest Hendrik, her life, and herself. In a double gender-bending twist the role of Cornald is played by Carina Zichner—though this amounts to no more than directorial or writerly whimsy, as nothing is made of this decision. Caretaker Oleg (Owen Peter Read) is at once distant yet warm in his dealings with Elisabeth and the family.

What jars in Lanoye’s updated version is that Elisabeth Lear, given her status and the financial means of her family, would have been placed in a high-quality assisted living facility with a dementia ward, and one of her sons appointed as guardian. It is hardly conceivable that she would be left to roam the streets, with or without a storm. It’s thus an emotional situation rather than a real one, and the Frankfurt production, steering clear from any realism, makes this point very clearly.

As interesting as Königin Lear is conceptually, the direction by Kay Voges is very traditionally German in execution. It ticks the usual German theatre boxes: awkward sex, urination, Nazi allusions, blood. Another standard of German theatre is the default screaming of all characters at any moments of distress, anguish, or sundry emotion. When reality turns askew, the direction suddenly acquires a commedia-like formality, and in the last part of the play the family appears in stylized uniforms and German folkloric outfits as opposed to the hitherto black suits for all characters—also a much-used trope of German theatre costume design (Mona Ulrich)—to inform us that Gregory, Hendrik, and their wives are not nice people.

Viktor Tremmel (Gregory), Lukas Rüppel (Hendrik), Josefin Platt (Elisabeth Lear), and Carina Zichner (Cornald) in Tom Lanoye’s Königin Lear, directed by Kay Voges at Schauspiel Frankfurt. Photo: Schauspiel Frankfurt | Birgit Hupfeld.

Lanoye doesn’t mess with Shakespeare’s ending. Cornald is dead, his bloodied body draped over his defeated mother, the last image a pietà with Elisabeth desperately trying to suckle him back to life. The end is sad, dire, and moving, even though I found myself recoiling at the obviousness of the image.

Königin Lear has received very positive reviews in the Frankfurt press. I personally left the theatre underwhelmed. Shakespeare is strong and will survive anything, so whenever his language and emotional charge was palpable, the result was powerful and affecting. Lanoye’s additions, however, seemed to me in parts very obvious updates or simply not as great as what the Bard provided in the first place.  That said, the play should receive more productions, as artistic directors everywhere know that “Shakespeare” triggers recognition in audiences, and Königin Lear delivers one hell of a power role for a strong female actor. For this fact alone I wish it much success.

Katrin Hilbe is a director of opera and theatre working both in the US and in Europe. Her staging of Richard Strauss’s Salome for New Orleans Opera was awarded “Best Opera Production 2012.” Select music theatre/opera credits include Fremd bin ich Eingezogen … (Konstanz), Die Schumann Sonate (Liechtenstein, Basel, and Zürich), Falstaff (Frankfurt), and Pelléas et Mélisande (Würzburg). During 2007–2010 Katrin was the primary Assistant Director for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen under the direction of Tankred Dorst at the Bayreuth Festival.

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European Stages, vol. 7, no. 1 (Fall 2016, Special Issue: Shakespeare in Europe, 2016)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

Dominika Laster, Co-Editor

Kalina Stefanova, Co-Editor

Editorial Staff:

Cory Tamler, Managing Editor

Mayurakshi Sen, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams
Christopher Balme
Maria Delgado
Allen Kuharsky
Bryce Lease
Jennifer Parker-Starbuck
Magda Romańska
Laurence Senelick
Daniele Vianello
Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

  1. Some Quadricentennial Shakespeare in Germany by Marvin Carlson
  2. Tiago Rodrigues’s Antony and Cleopatra by Manuel García Martínez
  3. Amleto: An Opera Rediscovered by Katrin Hilbe
  4. Coping With the Greatest for Over One Hundred Years by Alen Biskupović
  5. The Art of Sharing Shakespeare: Emil Boroghină, a Romanian Sorcerer by Maria Zărnescu
  6. Shakespeare’s Villains and Modern Politicians in Latvia by Edīte Tišheizere
  7. A Queen for a King! Tom Lanoye’s Königin Lear at Schauspiel Frankfurt by Katrin Hilbe
  8. The Tempest: Magical Ballet Where East Meets West by Sepideh Shokri Poori
  9. “The Ukrainian Play”: Macbeth Ritualized by Vlad Troitskyi by Daria Moskvitina
  10. Les Kurbas’s Tradition in Ukrainian Shakespeare Productions by Nataliya Torkut

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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