surreal ale

shear drama: King Lear played by sheep, in Hoxton

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I went to see King Lear with Sheep at The Courtyard (runs until 16 August)

One of the most remarkable aspects of social media is the vast proliferation of images of animals, with today’s walls returning to near-Ancient Egyptian levels of cat worship. Some have even credited this trend with the Arab Spring; as one theory has it, Hosni Mubarak’s régime could shut down activists’ communications with impunity, but truly stoked mass resentment when its suppression of Facebook left private citizens unable to share photos of their pets.

With animals’ every blooper now recorded and instantly uploaded for future viewing, the early part of this decade has brought a vast mass of evidence justifying the practitioners of anthropomorphism: the attribution of human qualities to other species. Today’s YouTube maintenance staff char their fingers on servers whirring hot with video evidence that cats can talk, cockatiels can sing, monkeys drink alcohol, spiders lift weights, and bears feel anguish over crows in distress.

Alas, future historians will be unable to find any archival proof that terrorist atrocities and currency crises really took place in the 2010s, a decade whose politicians communicated exclusively by text messaging rather than compiling box upon box of handwritten correspondence like their analogue forebears. Posterity will credit our civilisation only as a golden age of kitten pratfalls, bereft of either grand utopian visions or genocidal warlust.

However, with some last arenas of homo sapiens’ activity having survived the rise of animal-dominated ones, our furred and feathered opponents have now begun trying to enter and hegemonise the remaining outposts of human control. This is why we should not be in the least surprised that a vegetarian is now poised to win the Labour Party leadership, while a theatre in Hoxton has put on a play (Shakespeare’s King Lear) exclusively starring sheep.

If in more innocent times Hackney children bedecked in cotton wool gowns would interpret the sheep roles in human dramas, thanks to rampant gentrification the Shoreditch theatre circuit is now dominated by emboldened hipster ovines who sip £4 soya cappuccinos over £36 bowls of Cheerios. As a former local resident never having shown any previous interest in Shakespeare’s work, a heartfelt desperation to latch onto the latest in-crowd nonetheless demanded that I attend and try to rub shoulders with our new sheep overlords.

Indeed, I must admit that I have never previously been a keen, or even consenting theatre-goer. In fact, I tend to consider theatre one of those moribund art forms that is kept alive only by powerful lobbies of charlatans grown fat off state subsidies, of a piece with the opera or nuclear weapons. In all three cases, an expert in-crowd insists that its chosen field is of some general social value, and thus needs government cash, and the 99.9% who don’t share their passion mistake this devotion to material interest for some sort of learned insight.

This fear of having the wool pulled over my eyes naturally intensified as I attended the sheep-only production of King Lear in Hoxton, with even the noble and ancient actor’s craft now outsourced to low-wage ewe labour. Though one of the protagonists was a familiar face following years of extra work on Emmerdale, Countryfile and a truly dismal effort on That Dog Can Dance, I thought the use of wordless, four-stomached cud-chewers to be something of an insult to the audience.

Nonetheless, it has to be said that the play far exceeded expectations. After all, it had seemed that the director was running the risk of all history’s dreamers, with the ideal promising more than was materially possible. Like Google Glass or the USSR, the ambitious concept was so enthralling that it seemed it could only disappoint in practice, confronted with the mundane reality of human existence. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The meat of the play was not in fact King Lear played by sheep, but rather a man boasting of how well their tour had gone, followed by about half an hour of him trying to cajole the sheep, some of them decked out in paper crowns and ruffs, to perform the play. The sheep of course remained entirely impassive as human lead Alasdair Saksena resorted to acting out the various roles by himself, with the heath scene and the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes interspersed with embittered rants about the prima-donnaish behaviour of ‘Cordelia’, the female protagonist.

Sweat pouring down his naked torso throughout the second half, Saksena’s bombastic delivery as well as his efforts to manhandle the sheep cast reminded those attending of a young Brian Blessed. Yet faced with this impassioned recital, the sheep’s bemused silence offered a devastating commentary on the alienating and tedious experience of being forced to endure the company of theatre people.

No wonder, then, that the sneering laughter of the crowd upon the woollen ensemble’s emergence soon turned into horror at the sheep’s acute upstaging of the very idea of theatre. Initial complacency gave way to recognition that far from the play showing that animals could not act out Shakespeare, it had merely proven that there would be no further purpose in humans trying to do so. Sheep with threadbare costumes had dared to say that the chattering classes have no clothes; and with their historic role played out, the doomed Hoxtonista audience slunk into the night, not even bothering to open their umbrellas.

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