Lady Lear is the king of her universe
There can be no arguing with legendary dancer and actor, Valda Setterfield’s remarkable history and contribution to modern dance. Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson, David Gordon, Woody Allen, it might be easier to list who Setterfield hasn’t worked with during her eighty-two years. If you’re unimpressed by such things and wanted to know what’s she doing now, she’s currently playing King Lear in ‘Lear,’ a new version of Shakespeare's classic produced by John Scott’s Irish Modern Dance Theatre.’ And it could arguably be one of the finest and most important roles of her distinguished career to date.
Originally commissioned for The Kilkenny Arts Festival, 'Lear' subsequently went on to receive critical acclaim in New York as part of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Program, ‘I Am Ireland.’ In this new version, Scott and Setterfield’s ‘Lear’ is informed by their own personal experiences of dealing with the decline and loss of a parent as much as by the Bard’s tragic tale. As in the original, the aging King preparing to divide up his kingdom looks for declarations of devotion from his three daughters. Goneril and Regan dutifully comply, showily saying all the right things at the right time in the right way. But Cordelia doesn’t want to play that game. The already waning kings becomes completely unhinged and banishes her from his sight while Regan and Goneril effectively banish him from theirs. Bereft and alone, apart from his fools, and caught up in the eye of the storm, Lear engages in a duel to the death with madness, in the hope of achieving both redemption and reconciliation before it's too late.
Described as "a streamlined dance performance of Shakespeare’s tragic play" in truth ‘Lear’ is more dance theatre than dance, merging both text and theatricality with some excellently choreographed sequences. If several secondary characters are omitted, with cast reduced to Lear, his three daughters and the fool, nothing of importance is lost. Indeed, the alchemy of Scott, Setterfield and Shakespeare is one in which Lear is wonderfully reimagined for the 21st century in a manner which may be deeply personal and currently relevant, but it always remains Lear.
Choreographically, theatrically and often meta-theatrically, Scott does an outstanding job, with ‘Lear’ becoming something larger than its constituent parts which merge wonderfully well together. Brief, beautifully choregraphed sequences inform and are informed by text, voice, props and staging. When Lear undergoes her darkening night of the mind, body, heart and soul, the storm rages about, the world darkens and all is violently torn apart as the frail are consumed by the tempest. Using the simplest of props and gestures, coupled with impeccable timing, Scott’s storm sequence is a moment of theatrical perfection. Equally, its tender, heart rending sequence later on, as daughter mirrors mother mirroring daughter. Meticulously crafted, each is simply executed, exquisitely realised, yet immensely powerful. As are the design by Eric Würtz, opening music by James Everest and composition and sound design by Tom Lane. If the phone call sequence drifted a little with its talk of turkey and tofu, it was a minor distraction. Indeed, the breakdown of communication, with words often broken down into insulting and inaudible syllables hurled at the aging king, was yet another fascinating feature of this richly layered production.
While the star of the show is unquestionably Setterfield, her three strong, supporting male cast of Mufutau Yusuf, Ryan O’Neill and Kevin Coquelard filling out the female roles, are each exceptional, with the quartet and choreographer collectively forming something of a unique ensemble. There’s a palpable sense of trust, respect and passion that’s almost tangible and informs ‘Lear’ with a unique depth and richness. As does Setterfield’s extraordinary presence. Her sequences are soft and subtle, like delicate Tai Chi movements overflowing with extraordinary power. Such is Setterfield’s craft, she appears to physically diminish as Lear shifts from the regal to the vulnerable, culminating in an image of childlike frailty protected by nothing more powerful than sheets of paper.
Meanwhile, her daughter’s rage, despair, petulance and greed are given excellent expression by her three male collaborators. Mufutau Yusuf delights as the elder Goneril wonderfully proclaiming her false love and her late night frustration. Ryan O’Neill thrills as the violent Regan, screaming in the helpless face of the aging king, desperately wanting his father's throne. Kevin Coquelard's French Cordelia is a scene stealing delight, making the loudest and grandest of exits and entrances, or showing the most genuine of concern as arms are wrapped guidingly about a waist.
The issue of how best to respond to the needs of an aged family member, particularly one suffering dementia, is both a personal and political issue. In the 21st century where healthier bodies often endure while their mind diminishes, the need for support is crucial. But how do you do so in a social framework where the family structure is no longer constructed to offer the help it once did? With divorce, blended families, spiraling health care costs, both parents working to meet the costs of modern life and the young often needing to immigrate to find work, or even accommodation, the home and family are often no longer able to offer the kind of home support their elderly family members might need. Which leaves the nursing home, with all the guilt and sense of failure that entails. Practical and emotional needs clash when those who cannot afford, either practically or financially, the level of care they want to give to those they love. If ‘Lear’ avoids political questions, it certainly engages with personal one’s head on, knowing we must go through that very personal experience first. In ‘Lear,’ Scott and Setterfield know this well, and their ending returns to the very question it all began with. A question we understand a little better having taken the journey.
If Setterfield has carved a unique career for herself by being the unique exception to almost every rule, her performance as ‘Lear’ is no exception to that rule. Not to be missed, and not simply because it’s an opportunity to see a legend of modern dance. It’s not to be missed because Setterfield’s Lady Lear is an exquisite delight, exquisitely directed and choreographed, in a tremendous production with a trio of excellent dancers. Wonderfully heart breaking, ‘Lear’ overflows with warmth, heart, humour and humanity, and may well move you to both laughter and tears.
‘Lear’ produced by John Scott’s Irish Modern Dance Theatre runs at The Samuel Beckett Theatre until October 24th