Dublin Theatre Festival: Everyone is King Lear in his own Home

Pan Pan's 'Everyone is King Lear in his own Home' as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Pan Pan's 'Everyone is King Lear in his own Home' as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Pan Pan is no stranger to walking the space between producing a glut of theatrical meaning and no meaning at all, as evidenced by their approach to the dissection of classics like Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. Here they attack the marrow of King Lear, slicing and dicing it in an exploration of loneliness, dependency, and the dissolution of self. Director Gavin Quinn’s production, set in a reconstruction of (what we are told in the programme is) actor Andrew Bennett’s flat, purposely defies easy definition by jettisoning traditional narrative and psychological realism, and while it can be frustrating, incoherent, and indulgent at times, it is at last beautiful and strangely disarming.

The beauty of the production is thanks in great part to the way its two performers Andrew Bennett and Judith Roddy deal with Shakespeare’s language and each other. Both actors play themselves, or figures resembling them. We are introduced to Bennett, already Lear-like with his bushy grey beard and tousled silver curls, tucked away behind a pane of glass in his tiny kitchen, frantically concocting some kind of leek-based beverage, and exhibiting the physical cues of severe mental disability. Roddy arrives, countering Bennett’s frenetic energy with a slow, sustained movement that brings her into the flat, divesting herself of her coat and bag, and setting to the task of dressing Bennett in a fresh adult diaper. These associated actions, somewhat mechanical and tinted with stray traces of tenderness, immediately mark Roddy as carer and Bennett as her charge. However, the specifics of their relationship hover between a range of possibilities without necessarily settling on anything definitive or literal. Bennett is at once a father, a tormentor, a child, a brother, a king, while Roddy ranges from carer to daughter, protector to confessor. This proves frustrating at first, as the literal mind wants to know who these people are to each other, what exactly is at stake in their relationship. Their first exchanges are bland, cold, and repetitive, as if they were doing everything they could to wring every last drop of meaning and intention from the simplest of spoken phrases. Roddy asks Bennett repeatedly if it’s okay that she let herself in. Bennett tonelessly describes having spent some time in his youth living on nothing but Alpen. These deserts of empty exchanges are broken up mercifully by the oases of extracts from King Lear, the language of which inhabit the performers like something otherworldly. The relationships and themes written into the language — that of infirmity, mental instability, or loneliness — find compelling associations here, and force us to really listen, as if for the first time, to Shakespeare’s words, which pulse in this instance with strange possibility while at the same time denying a crystallisation of meaning.

Bewildering as this can be, it seems this is exactly how director Quinn wants the performance to be articulated: nothing is solid and everything shifts. Whenever Bennett and Roddy are in danger of cementing the single frame of a definitive relationship (that of fellow actors, Cordelia and Lear, or pursuer and pursued), things are blown open by an unsettling reset, whether indicated by Aedín Cosgrove’s set and lighting (at once domestic and ethereal) or Jimmy Eadie’s tremulous sound design. The performance’s tension therefore lies between the two poles of an excess of meaning, exemplified by the simultaneous nature of Bennett and Roddy’s possible relationships, or a desert of meaning where it becomes impossible for the performers and the audience to know who each is to the other.

Metaphorically speaking, such a directorial approach pretty much hits the existential battle at the heart of King Lear on the head. The multivalent readings of the identity of Lear, performed by him and others, both within and without the play, can eventually strip him bare to his most essential humanity. He is at once a tyrannical king and father, a fool, a madman, a doting old man, a beggar. But these associations eventually cancel each other out, leaving the frail physical reality of body subject to time and the elements. The same goes for Bennett and Roddy, jumping from action to action, from context to context, until everything means nothing and nothing means everything. This approach isn’t always successful and fails on a few occasions. Attempts to introduce definitive elements of Bennett’s biography three quarters of the way through the play come across as a distraction at such a late stage, as does the introduction of a live (and admittedly cute) mouse into the equation. But what this production does drive home is the very tenuous nature of our own sense of self: identity is provisional, a something that comes of nothing. 

Jesse Weaver was awarded a PhD in Theatre Studies from UCC, and is a playwright.



  • Review
  • Theatre

Dublin Theatre Festival: Everyone is King Lear in his own Home by Pan Pan

Oct 1-7 2012

Produced by Pan Pan
In Smock Alley Theatre

Director: Gavin Quinn
Designer: Aedín Cosgrove
Sound Designer: Jimmy Eadie
Cast: Andrew Bennett and Judith Roddy