At the Comédie Française, a King Lear of the poor: a small show or the show of smallness?

Shakespeare, Cadiot, Ostermeier and Podalydès united for a King Lear of Comédie (French): the poster is too enticing not to be irresistible. Tickets are taken this summer for a show to be seen in the fall, a show that we imagine to be grandiose and extravagant.

At the start of the school year, however, the first reviews were fierce: the show did not seem to live up to its illustrious creators, the poster was disproportionate and the result disappointed in particular aficionados of the German master who had thrilled with his audacious twelfth night mounted in 2018 in this same house.

© French Comedy

It is true that this Lear is modest. The first hour of the show – which has three hours – however breaks down the prejudices constructed by a demanding critic who is quick to point out the shortcomings of the proposal. As soon as the curtain rises, everything is almost already there. The unique space of a bare moor opens up to the winds of family discord soberly and precisely posed by the king and his reduced entourage. This scorched earth overflows towards the public by an overhang that devours the front row and by a horizontal walkway, a black tongue that divides the floor, ensuring the comings and goings of the actors towards the back of the room. Between two horizons, distant regularly invaded by smoke and dark back room, the playing space seems reduced to this narrow desolate landscape, sparse with tufts of dried grass. A dry desert like the heart of all these beings tense on their individual desires and devoid of any generosity.

The leather throne, improbably placed in the center of this hostile nature, represents a wobbly power that a king in a dressing gown struggles to occupy as well as to leave. Rewritten more than translated by Olivier Cadiot, Shakespeare’s text loses in majesty what it gains in proximity. The actors slip into it with an almost disconcerting ease of familiarity. Is this the text of King Lear what do we hear? Yes, but as rarely, at the height of a man more than a king. Because that is what it is all about: becoming a man again when you have been sovereign for a long time, enjoying life when you have devoted yourself to the exercise of the state, enjoying your last years when you have consecrated the best to raising his children… With the grace that we know him for, Denis Podalydès carries this man whom age makes mischievous and egocentric, whose oversized dress floats according to his stamping and who shares his kingdom like a child lends his toys.

Denis Podalydes in King Lear © Jean-Louis Fernandez / French Comedy

Aged before being wise, he imposes his choices, his desires and his friends in a variation on the conflict of generations which makes his daughters the reasonable and boring parents of an economical and rational world. Both warriors and businesswomen, the female characters struggle to find their place on this bumpy moor that their heels have trouble controlling. Neither funny nor tragic, they are a weak link in this show, while Ostermeier claims their central place in his very developed note of intent. This is undoubtedly one of the pitfalls of the show: twisting the subject towards an enhancement of feminine power, using it to promote a form of diversity, while the contradictions, impatience and impotence of each are much more universal. .

© Pascal Gely / Hans Lucas / French Comedy

If this show confuses our representation of Shakespeare it is because it develops his humility more than his greatness. A Shakespeare of the poor in a way, while the means implemented could be grandiose. Ostermeier strives to deflate the lyrical breath of Shakespearian verve, in accordance with Olivier Cadiot’s choice to translate in the present tense of prose. The storm on the Lande is thus both a piece of bravery and a balloon that deflates as soon as the madman doesn’t care. Ostermeier plays on what he knows and can do — what is expected of him — to disappoint the public and denounce his own power. Amplified music, video and acting talent become their own parody, the whim of the omnipotent director or the exalted old king, both merging in this childish demonstration of virtuosity.

© Jean-Louis Fernandez / French Comedy

Success is on the side of the popular characters: the madman, singing and strumming his guitar, plays rehearsal comedy which ensures his interventions an immediate success. Edmond, the deceitful manipulator whose only confidant is the public, addresses the audience in a brilliant improvisation on astrology. For a few moments, the Richelieu room resembles the Globe: the actor in the center of the floor jokes with the spectators who take the floor to answer him…! In the mix of registers it is the comedy that takes precedence, the violent scenes, like the enucleation of Gloucester or the final slaughter seeming more sketched than assumed. The final hour of the show leaves a mixed impression, as if the deal had been a bit shoddy. Back in a wheelchair, Denis Lear seems to wake up from a long nightmare: the king de-reads, and all that remains is a disoriented old man, as featherless as the moor from which he emerges.

It is always perilous to assume what the representation of Lear at the time of its creation… Perhaps it looked a bit like the one Ostermeier proposes today: modest in its means, seeking public approval to denounce the absurdities of a society governed by capricious beings, it takes the risk of a small form to account for the pettiness of the world.

For lovers of excess, it will soon be possible to see the power of Ostermeier in another Shakespearean staging served by the actors of the Schaubühne: richard III will be at the Théâtre des Gémeaux in two months and its monstrosity will reach new heights!

King Lear after William Shakespeare, Directed by Thomas Ostermeier, At the French comedy until February 26, 2023, 2h40 without intermission

Richard III of Shakespeare, Directed by Thomas Ostermeier, Théâtre des Gémeaux (Sceaux), from January 12 to 22, 2023

At the Comédie Française, a King Lear of the poor: a small show or the show of smallness?