William Shakespeare's King Lear is a most miserable fellow. The British monarch is old, tired, and bitter--and temperamental to boot. And so, in a foolhardy quest to shed the responsibilities of running his kingdom, he pits his three daughters--Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia--against one another (and himself) with tragic results. Throughout five acts Lear rages against the mess he has wrought all around him, ignoring the fact that his own cruelty, intended or not, is at the root of his plight.
Jan Lauwers, founder and director of the 16-year-old Belgian troupe Needcompany, sees King Lear as a timely challenge, likening the classic to "a big black ball that just keeps rolling over you." "It's very legit to do this play," Lauwers says over the phone from Brussels, a week and a half before his company is slated to bring their Lear to the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Alluding to the events of September 11, he continues, "It's about what's happening now. The cruelty of humankind always exists. There have been more than 500 wars since the end of World War II. Fifty-five million died in that war. If Auschwitz couldn't change the cycle of cruelty, what can?"
If the 44-year-old Lauwers is a bit skeptical about the course of modern history, he's more idealistic when it comes to experimental theater. A visual artist by training (he graduated from the Art College in Ghent) he'd never studied drama before founding Epigonen ("without a leader") Ensemble in 1979 with a few friends. By 1981 he was heading up a full-fledged theatrical troupe. Four years later Epigonen disbanded and Needcompany emerged.
Lauwers laughs about the multiple meanings of the name. "I need company," he says, alluding to a sense of loneliness. More specifically, he needs a gang of performers to get his radical vision onto the stage. Together, the troupe has explored everything from Shakespeare to The Vagina Monologues, with original works including the Obie Award-winning Morning Song, which celebrates in tragicomic form the "animal need to survive."
Lauwers, who is also directing a movie titled The Goldfish Game, pushes his Lear beyond the traditional boundaries of theater, incorporating a soundtrack that features the Residents and Mogwai, and recalling the multidisciplinary experiments of Anne Bogart and Robert Wilson. "I'm a little restless when I make theater," Lauwers says. "But I try to respect Shakespeare. I don't put Saddam Hussein or George Bush in Lear's place. I do put some of myself into it, but Shakespeare always wins out."
Spare sets and contemporary costume give the performers plenty of opportunity to fill the space with their personae and explore the many aspects of a twisted heart. "You can act cruel very beautifully," Lauwers observes. "Like Marlon Brando in The Godfather."
Dance plays a key role in Needcompany's Lear as choreographer and company member Carlotta Sagna adds a layer of physical activity, even diversion, to the events onstage. "It's not too common to use dance in Shakespeare," says Lauwers, "but I feel the need for different sources of energy. King Lear doesn't have to be at the center of the stage. The audience chooses what to see, which is the way visual art goes."
The 12-member ensemble, which represents seven different nationalities, performs Lear in Flemish and English, with a subtitle machine onstage filling the role of 13th actor. "Sometimes we read it with you and then we go on," says Lauwers, who takes a casual stance on the actors' grasp of the text. "They can read it or say it by heart," he adds with what sounds like a shrug. What matters most is that the performers think their way through the play, negotiating the difficult path between acting and non-acting using raw instinct instead of rote memorization. In Needcompany's scheme, Lear is both master and subject of the mercurial forces within him, which makes the stage--like the world beyond it--an endlessly volatile place.