Lear's Shadow: Coming Soon to a Festival Near You
Lear's Shadow will soon be making the tour of the film festivals, starting with the Pasadena International Film Festival on March 11. In the meantime, special screenings are making the tour of the Shakespeare blogs.
The film is a stripped-down, bare bones show, all the more impressive for how much it accomplishes. The premise gradually unfolds in a single setting—a theatre's rehearsal space. A somewhat-confused director—Jack—makes his way in, followed by an actor—Stephen. Jack starts complaining about the scripts and the other actors who haven't shown up. We start to realize that Jack has some sort of short-term memory loss and he's just been released from the hospital.
Stephen, at first as a delaying tactic, starts to talk about King Lear. That's the launching pad for a number of discussions of the play—how it ought to be acted, how it has been acted, what significance it has—as well as a number of performances of key scenes. It becomes something of a mirror movie at that point, the two men working out some longstanding disagreements as well as the recent events that have brought them to such a state.
And that's all I'm going to tell you about the plot. I hope the film will do well on the festival circuit and that it will eventually achieve larger distribution. I hope that because it's good. It's quite good.
First, I was impressed by the acting. I'm privileged to see a lot of work that hasn't made it to a theatrical release, and a good premise is sometimes played out in a less-than-satisfying manner. That's not the case here. Both in acting their roles and in their roles acting parts of King Lear, David Blue and Fred Cross do magnificent work.
Second, the use of Shakespeare is fascinating here. The writer isn't setting out to make Shakespeare relevant—I get them impression that he knows that Shakespeare is already relevant. Instead, Lear's Shadow reveals Shakespeare's relevance. Parts of King Lear are carefully, organically crafted in to the film, and we're shown one way the suffering of King Lear becomes significant, meaningful, and healing to other sufferers in the world.
If you're able to catch this at a film festival, do so. It's a powerful piece where writing, acting, and concept come together to produce a significant reflection on Shakespeare that stands on its own as well.
Lear's Shadow: 'Unaccommodated' Shakespearean appropriation
In a year in which acting heavyweights Anthony Sher, Ian McKellen and Anthony Hopkins are set to give us a trio of ‘superstar’ Lears on stage and screen, it’s refreshing also to have the chance to experience films like Lear’s Shadow, an independently made two-hander willing to approach King Lear with both boldness and humility. Brian Elerding’s film highlights the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s tragic play not by making that goal its explicit purpose, but by taking Lear’s relevance as an accepted truth and applying that truth to tragic circumstances extraordinary in their impact yet ordinary in their potential occurrence.
‘You know, I’ve always wished that I could just do the main plot’, says Jack (Fred Cross) at a point soon after running through dialogue from 1.1 of Lear in a rehearsal room with Stephen (David Blue), an actor in the theatre company of which Jack is the director. From this point on in Lear’s Shadow, that’s exactly what the two men do, piecing together a ‘Lear-only Lear’ as they describe it by running through a handful of scenes from the play focused on the titular king. From a filmmaking perspective, this decision by writer and director Elerding also makes pragmatic sense: in a low-budget production such as this, just over an hour in length and with only two characters on screen for most of that time, attempting to cover every plot element of Lear would likely have set the film up to disappoint if not fail altogether.
Jack justifies his wish by expressing a desire to gain greater understanding of Lear as a character, feeling that the play’s subplot prevents him from doing that. Initially therefore, having the two characters play out only Lear-centric scenes appears to give Elerding the opportunity to do what Jack feels he’s never been able to do. In fact, Elerding doesn’t ‘try to do Lear without the subplot’ (as Jack puts it) at all. Instead, he introduces a subplot of his own in place of Shakespeare’s delivered through modern-day scripted dialogue spoken by Jack, Stephen and later Rachel (Katie Peabody), Jack’s daughter. Importantly, it’s a subplot which neither attempts to recreate the Gloucester story from the play nor to contemporise the main Lear-centric plot. Elerding’s script is better than that, subtly but powerfully resonating with themes from Shakespeare’s play as facts and hints about what has happened to these characters leading up to the hour or so we spend with them are interwoven with the director’s chosen scenes from the play. As such, Elerding’s use of Lear is reminiscent of Kristian Levring’s 2001 film The King Is Alive, in which a group of tourists stranded in the Namibian desert resort to rehearsing the play as a distraction from the desperate situation in which they find themselves. Elerding’s appropriation of Lear shuns Levring’s nihilistic and self-destructive perspective, however, utilising the play instead to present an intimate exploration of the complex relationships between colleagues, friends and family still in the immediate throes of personal tragedy.
Adapted for the screen by Elerding from his Ensemble Shakespeare Theater Company play of the same name, Lear’s Shadow retains the essence of theatrical performance without ever feeling simply like a filmed stage production. The play was first performed in 2017 with the audience sat at rehearsal tables surrounding the performance space as if ready to take part in a table read1; Elerding’s use of close-ups and mid-shots throughout his film, especially at times of heightened emotion, emulates the way in which the theatre audience would have been in close proximity to his characters when experiencing the original play. The director ensures his camerawork never distracts from the performances of his cast, choosing the moments to employ relatively more cinematic shooting techniques carefully. At one point, Jack and Stephen discuss whether or not sound effects are needed to bring the storm scene of 3.2 to life, with Jack declaring the best version of the scene he ever saw was Lear standing fully lit centre stage, simply making you believe the storm surrounded him. Moments later, the camera slowly pans around Jack as he delivers Lear’s opening speech of 3.2 in the middle of the rehearsal space, Elerding’s understated camerawork and Cross’s raw performance eloquently proving the character’s point. Mention must also be made of Ryan Moore’s original score heard at key points throughout, which is consistently cinematic whilst never feeling intrusive, melancholic without ever becoming melodramatic.
In almost every scene from Lear included in the film, Jack takes on the role of Lear; Stephen meanwhile shifts between a number of roles, at times playing multiple parts one after another in the same scene. It’s a smart choice. Sporting a wire crown and cheap red cloak over his everyday dress, and with a prominent black eye beneath his spectacles, Cross as Jack makes for a formidable yet vulnerable Lear, oscillating between ‘the dragon’ (1.1.123) of the early moments of the play and the ‘foolish, fond old man’ (4.7.60) of the later scenes impressively and, at times, without warning. Blue meanwhile deserves equal praise, believably presenting Stephen as an actor both willing and able to switch between multiple roles to drive Jack as Lear, keeping him focused on what they’re doing in the rehearsal room and not on anything else that may or may not be going on outside it.
Away from their Shakespearean performances, the dynamic between Jack and Stephen is authentically realised by Cross and Blue. The pair’s relationship has clearly been fraught in the past (professional grievances and personal bugbears make their way to the surface on a number of occasions) but it’s also clear that both men understand and care about each other deeply – something which feels as though it matters more during the brief time we spend with them than it has at any point in their lives before then, making it all the more important that Cross and Blue successfully convince us of that fact throughout. Whilst the character’s role is relatively small, Rachel turns Lear’s Shadow from a two- to a three-hander at the right moment, adding just enough to our understanding of the story as a whole without becoming a crude expository device or deus ex machina. Katie Peabody shrewdly uses her limited screen time to effectively craft Rachel into the quasi-Cordelia Jack’s Lear requires.
Whilst the division between Shakespeare’s scenes and the dialogue written by Elerding is overt, the film is at its best when the boundaries between Jack and Stephen and the Shakespearean roles they play are at their most blurred. As the two men perform sections of 1.4 – Jack as Lear, Stephen alternating between the Fool and Goneril – Jack becomes increasingly infuriated as he delivers Lear’s speech, in the play seemingly in response to Albany (not present in Jack and Stephen’s version) but delivered as an apostrophe to 'Nature … dear goddess' (1.4.267). As Jack yells the final words, ‘Away, away!’ (1.4.281), Stephen looks visibly moved by his anger, unable for a few seconds to respond or even to comprehend Jack’s outburst; but it’s not clear if this reaction is in role as the Fool, or as Goneril, or whether at this point Blue has moved back to simply playing Stephen. Perhaps Blue is playing both Stephen and the Fool, or Stephen and Goneril – maybe even all three. Sublime moments such as this are the reason that Lear’s Shadow never needs to set out to prove the relevance of Lear, allowing Shakespeare’s text and Elerding’s direction to exist concurrently to craft a single moment of simultaneous conflicting, enigmatic, yet utterly human emotion.
Lear's Shadow is currently on the festival circuit, although no screenings within the UK are scheduled at the time of writing. The film will also be made available through online streaming services in the future.
Shakespeare Geek Review
By Duane Morin
A rehearsal room, dark. Enter JACK through the curtains, directly from outside as we see cars driving past. He rolls a single, lit
incandescent lamp to center, and opens the curtains. We see folding tables on which sit copies of Romeo and Juliet by William
Shakespeare. JACK picks one up and starts swearing.
Enter a younger man, STEPHEN, on the phone and holding a neck brace. He’s clearly been looking for JACK and is relieved to find him.
Thus opens Lear’s Shadow, written and directed by Brian Elerding, which I had the pleasure of watching yesterday at Mr. Elerding’s invitation.
We quickly learn that something bad has happened, though what we do not yet know. Jack is bruised, Stephen is trying to get him back into the neck brace, so those are some obvious clues. More telling, however, is that Jack – our director – seems to have no real idea where or when he is. He doesn’t know what play they’re rehearsing (hence his anger at seeing Romeo and Juliet scripts) or why no one else has shown up for rehearsal.
Stephen’s job is to keep Jack talking until Rachel (who Stephen was speaking with on the phone) can bring the car around. They reminisce about other plays they’ve done together, before landing on King Lear. Jack keeps re-realizing that the scripts are wrong, and doesn’t know the date. Stephen takes it upon himself to walk through the play with Jack.
For the next hour the two debate the finer details of Lear – what scenes and lines can be cut, how to deliver certain lines, where to “start” so you have “somewhere to go”. If you love being a fly on the wall during conversations like this (as I do) you’re going to greatly enjoy this. I do not fancy myself an actor, never have, so I like to watch them work at their craft without trying to put myself in their place.
Of course none of this is random, we’ve got a man who has lost his memory and has clearly had some tragedy befall him doing what amounts to a one man show about a man who has lost his memory upon which many tragedies fall. It’s a reminder that while King Lear may have been written five hundred years ago it could also have happened yesterday.
Though I’m watching this as a movie it reminds me of going to theatre back when I was a younger man. It’s a bare stage two man show, just dialogue, no real plot to speak of other than toward the ultimate answer to the “What happened?” question (which we may or may not receive).
If you believe that Shakespeare makes life better, even when it brings tears rather than laughter, then of course you’re going to like this. It’s very reminiscent of when Slings & Arrows did Lear, a connection the director and I already spoke of. “There’s no way I wasn’t influenced by Slings & Arrows,” he wrote. That’s intended as high praise. I’m not saying “This is trying to be Slings & Arrows,” I’m saying, “I’d watch an entire season of this like I’d watch a season of Slings & Arrows.”
Broadway World Review
Ensemble Shakespeare Theatre Transforms Tragedy Using Theatre in LEAR'S SHADOW
LEAR'S SHADOW, a new play by Shakespeare Ensemble Theater Artistic Director, Brian Elerding, is a sensitive exploration of theatre's transformative ability to heal, even under the most devastating of circumstances. Using passages from King Lear as a tool within a contemporary storyline, it takes a thoughtful and surprisingly candid approach to the subject of loss.
The set-up is a rehearsal room with the audience seated at tables arranged for what appears to be a table read. Jack (Fred Cross) arrives in a wheelchair and is clearly in distress. Uncertain of his surroundings and exhibiting subtle behavioral quirks that signal something isn't right, he searches to remember the missing pieces. Enter Stephen (David Blue), a young man who reveals that Jack is head of Stephen's acting company. Jack thinks he is preparing to conduct a rehearsal but the scripts on the tables are the wrong play.
As Jack's frustration builds, Stephen stumbles upon a way to calm the older man by asking him to talk through the plot of King Lear with him. Jack admits that he has always wanted to take the subplot out and do only the Lear scenes. The dialogue that follows is both humorous and poignant.
Elerding directs the play in the round which adds an acute intimacy to the scenes. Most of the 70 minutes is a verbal dance for two making casting critical. Cross and Blue are equally compelling, handling both modern conversation and Shakespearean verse with ease. It is particularly affecting to watch Cross struggle with the loss of his short term memory as Jack, but then transform into an entirely different person, full of confidence and vigor, when he launches into King Lear's scenes.
Blue artfully portrays all of the remaining characters, including the king's three daughters, Lear's Fool, and the Earl of Kent, while seamlessly responding to an endless stream of tonal changes. When the depth of his own suffering finally breaks through the surface, the moment is electric. Katie Peabody (as Jack's daughter Rachel) adds a quiet intensity.
LEAR'S SHADOW is a fine new play, with courageous performances, that borrows from Shakespeare to mend a mind when it seems nothing else can. As a dialogue for healing, it is both relatable and transformational.
There is a great deal more to discuss but it is best left until after you see the play. A spoiler in the program (don't worry, it comes with an alert so you won't read it accidentally) will give those who want more information a leg up before they see the show, but I suggest waiting until it ends to read it. Much of the dramatic tension comes from the slow revelation of what has happened offstage before the play begins. Its rhythm builds throughout the piece delivering a potent message about our resiliency as human beings.