Shakespeare’s Shadow: The Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear at the Globe

August 17, 2015

Written by Natalia Khomenko, York University in Toronto, Canada


“KING LEAR: Who is it that can tell me who I am?

FOOL: Lear’s shadow.”[1]


In 2012, the Belarus Free Theatre participated in the Globe to Globe festival, staging King Lear in Belarusian, radically edited and modernized. The choice to use Belarusian as the primary language of this performance was a daring one, for it is a language that does not exist in a single accepted version and, even within Belarus, is frequently superseded by Russian. An online comment posted under a 2012 review in The Guardian offers a vivid example of indifferent dismissal that such a choice might have produced: “I can imagine few things worse than being subject to Shakespeare in Belarusian. Honestly who’s interested?”[2]

The public response to the decision to stage King Lear in Belarusian on the Globe stage emphasizes the difficulties accompanying a former Soviet republic’s emergence onto the global stage. According to some reports, the Russian-speaking diaspora in London was unenthusiastic about attending a performance in one of the “minor” languages (due, one may guess, to the general idea that Belarusian is somehow less culturally significant than Russian, and perhaps to the potential viewers’ doubts about their ability to follow the text).[3] Reviews in English, while generally laudatory, also tended to perceive the choice of language as detracting from the authenticity of performance. In his online review, a freelance theatre critic Andrew Haydon commented that “the language into which the text has been rendered is demotic, not poetic,” despite, presumably, not actually having command of the language.[4] A year later, when the performance came back to the Globe, Laura Mooney called it “Shakespeare largely without Shakespeare, with all those famous speeches being, from an English-speaking audience member’s perspective at least, absent.”[5] As these comments demonstrate, the Global Shakespeare project depends, to a large extent, on the English-speaking audience’s openness to polyglossia and continuous cultural exchange.

As it turned out, many people were interested. In September 2013, the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear was brought back to the Globe to glowing reviews. Produced by a theatre exiled from Belarus (the country sometimes called the last dictatorship in Europe), this performance speaks directly to the questions that emerge, again and again, in Global Shakespeare discussions. Is Shakespeare in translation still Shakespeare? Are the tensions of early modern play really best accessed through painstaking reproduction of the text, however it is defined, with period-appropriate costumes, props, and decorations, or through participating in an ongoing dialogue with present-day socio-political issues?[6] The Belarus Free Theatre’s production of King Lear reaches beyond the “authentic historical Shakespeare” construct, frees the play from the constricting framework of expectations formed over centuries of Western performance and criticism, and brings together a varied array of histories to re-create potent Shakespearean drama for the twenty-first century stage. Intensely metatheatrical, this production repurposes the long Soviet history of making ideological use of Shakespeare to interrogate the performances of totalitarian power in present-day Belarus.

The Belarus Free Theatre draws simultaneously on Soviet and post-Soviet practices of reading and performing Shakespeare, and on the resonances between Lear’s fractured country and the contemporary states created after the USSR collapse in 1991. By explicitly situating the production within a non-Western literary tradition, the creators of the production are able to transcend the limitations identified by Susan Bennett in the second chapter of her monograph, entitled Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past. In that chapter, Bennett explores the proliferation of King Lear productions in order, as she puts it, “To focus on Shakespeare’s particular contribution to the macro-nostalgia of contemporary culture.”[7] At the end of the chapter, she concludes that Western or Westernized performances of this play are incapable of challenging the existing power structures:

In a traditional horizon of expectations, it performs a nostalgic identification with greatness – of the text, of Shakespeare, of the history of its mainstream, productions and those who have directed and acted in the play, and of the audiences who recognize those values. The play provides an explicit illustration of the containing impulses of Shakespeare as cultural heritage.[8]

And yet, post-Soviet context offers to Shakespeare – and King Lear in particular, as a play so closely concerned with considerations of power – the possibility of being unmoored from this horizon of expectation. The play, to be sure, is still very much identified with greatness and viewed as cultural heritage, but the origins of such cultural heritage, the credentials of heirs, and the laws of inheritance have grown muddled. The term “nostalgic,” when applied to the claims made on Shakespeare as cultural property by present-day Russian-speaking countries, has become tremendously complicated. The post-Soviet audience can hardly be suspected of longing for early modern England: their imaginings of the good old Britannia, if any, are rooted in the nineteenth-century novel.

If, for such an audience, the history of the play is radically mediated by the seventy years of communist rules, what values do they recognize in a performance? It is not surprising that, in his overview of Hamlet in Russia, Peter Holland wrote tersely that “The Russian construction […] is neither Shakespeare’s nor our own,” suggesting that the function of the play in Russia is “fragmentary and referential, deriving from an accumulative cultural meaning, which may have only tangential links to the original play.”[9] Holland’s phrasing views “Russian Shakespeare” (an umbrella term that covers, in a swoop, the period from the eighteenth century to the last years of the Soviet Union) as both exotic and marginal, positioning it outside of the dichotomy of “original Shakespeare” and the Western “we” (which presumably interprets the original in a more acceptable manner). Speaking from this marginal position, and disrupting the easy pleasures of nostalgic identification with greatness, post-Soviet productions can complicate the idea of Shakespeare as cultural heritage and mobilize the destabilizing potential of Shakespearean drama.

Consider, for instance, the exchange between Lear and Goneril in Act 1, scene 4, where the king famously complains of being unable to recognize himself, and begs to be told who he is. In the English text (the 1623 Folio version), the Fool’s mocking response is: “Lear’s shadow” (ll. 214-215). In the Belarus Free Theatre production, however, the Fool quips: “Цень атца Гамлета!” [Hamlet’s father’s shadow].[10] This unexpected substitution transforms the line into a catchphrase harking back to the nineteenth-century Russian translations of Hamlet. The translations by Nikolai Polevoy (1837) and Andrei Kroneberg (1844) used the one-syllable Russian word “тень” [shadow] to refer to the ghost.[11] The phrase “Hamlet’s father’s shadow” subsequently passed into Russian language as an idiomatic expression, suggesting overly dramatic self-presentation, and is occasionally used to refer to a vagabond or idle loiterer.

This bold refashioning move creates a moment of intertextual vertigo, pointing, on the one hand, to the status of Shakespearean drama as monolithic cultural capital, with disparate lines and characters merging together, in the public mind, into a continuous outpouring of universal truth. From this point of view, it is indeed difficult to distinguish between the two great shadows. On the other hand, the common usage of this phrase specifically in Soviet and post-Soviet context serves to undercut the idea of universal truth and applicability: in this metatheatrical moment, the audience is reminded that Shakespeare inexorably seeps into the popular culture, giving rise to a series of idiomatic expressions and widely known quotations, but that popular culture, in turn, inevitably colours our understanding of Shakespearean drama. Rather than search for the elusive authentic Shakespeare, the Belarus Free Theatre builds popular culture into the production, endowing the characters with painful awareness of their own cultural significance and transforming Shakespeare, from precious heritage, into hotly contested strategic territory.

“Truth in the Presentation of Life and Man”: Shakespeare in the Soviet Union

Post-Soviet theatre has a complex relationship with Shakespeare: emerging from the Soviet view of Shakespearean drama as the paragon of realistic writing, it draws on these conventions both to reassess the Soviet past and develop various forms of national identity. Staging Shakespeare in the Soviet Union was intricate and often risky business. As early as 1930s, with the advent of socialist realism, Shakespeare was hailed as one of the great realist playwrights, well deserving of being celebrated, emulated, and staged. Soviet criticism, built on the foundation of communist ideology, postulated that for any literary text, there existed a single correct interpretation, informed by the critic’s grasp of “real life” (which usually translated to the current ideological stance on such things as politics, social issues, or history). Accordingly, all performances of Shakespeare’s drama could be evaluated on the basis of how closely they have come to replicating this perfect reading of the play on-stage. A pamphlet by Mikhail Morozov (a famous Soviet Shakespeare scholar), published in English in 1947 with a preface by Dover Wilson, witnesses to the efforts exerted by USSR Theatrical Society (V.T.O.) to ensure that performances introduced no ideologically unsound elements and did not stray far from the sanctioned version of reality.[12] As Morozov explains, the primary value of Shakespearean drama for the Soviet audiences lay in its “Truth in the presentation of life and man.”[13] A particular production could thus be criticized for its failure to display the ultimate truth about human existence as discovered through the October Revolution: Nikolai Akimov’s production of Hamlet (Vakhtangov Theatre, 1932) is described as being “far removed from life” and therefore unsuccessful.[14]

In a very real sense, Shakespearean drama functioned in the Soviet Union as an instrument, however arbitrary and flawed, of creating a distinct post-revolutionary culture based on “true” understanding of the world, and identifying those who presumably lacked the capacity to become part of this culture. As such, theatrical productions and scholarly articles participated in one of the key trends underwriting the Soviet ideology – the ongoing effort to cleanse the new society by purging socially alien citizens, or those who were perceived as threatening to the new ideology due to their ancestry, past activities, or present-day convictions. This effort continued, in different forms and with varying intensity, from the October Revolution of 1917 and until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, through the purges of 1930s, cosmopolitanism persecutions of 1940s, post-Thaw crackdowns of 1960s, and so on.[15]

In the last decades of the Soviet Union, this concern with forms of belonging, and with one’s relationship to “truth,” was no longer strictly controlled by the official ideology.[16] In fact, Alexei Yurchak demonstrates that in its late stages, Soviet culture – while still operating on the principle of inclusion/exclusion – did not primarily rely on ideological distinctions but on the highly ritualized forms of social discourse linked to political and cultural concerns. In this dense cultural medium composed, as it still is, of immediately recognizable quotations and references, Shakespeare grew unmoored from the official doctrine and thus became available to those questioning the regime. Still, those seeking to resist the Soviet ideology and respond to the decades of state terror by re-appropriating Shakespeare and discovering the “real” significance of his works operated within the same horizon of expectations. Their refashioning deployed the same ideologically informed reading mode which posited Shakespeare, “accurately” interpreted, as the means of accessing some higher truth.

A well-known example of such refashioning is Yuri Liubimov’s production of Hamlet in the Taganka Theatre, with the idolized song-writer, bard, and actor Vladimir Vysotsky in the main role, which explicitly linked Shakespearean drama to resisting the regime. This innovative production ran for almost nine years, terminating only with the death of Vysotsky in 1980, and became a symbol of resistance against the stifling state. The performance opened with Boris Pasternak’s famous poem, entitled “Hamlet,” originally written in 1946 and later appended to the novel Doctor Zhivago. This novel, of course, was banned from publication in the Soviet Union and, after having been smuggled out of the country and published in Milan in 1957, received the Nobel Prize for Literature. The speaker of the poem, presumably the writer himself, closely identifies with Hamlet, and the enthusiastic audience response suggests that the concerns of a lonely Soviet poet wandering dangerous ideological terrain were immediately identifiable with the doubts of the Danish Prince. Immense popularity of Liubimov and Vysotsky’s production demonstrates that the perceived potential of Shakespearean drama as a vehicle for ideological doubt only increased with time, even as such potential remained solidly rooted in the Soviet reading practices. Based on the premise that Shakespeare’s works could grant access to some sort of objective truth about the world and social transformations, this approach perpetuated the ideologically enforced modes of engaging with literature and theatre even as it fought against the Soviet cultural project.

Today, Shakespearean drama retains this significance in post-Soviet culture: it is still frequently treated as a viable link to historical and spiritual truth both by those seeking to move fully beyond the Soviet past and by those ardently wishing for the purportedly purer morals of the Soviet period. There are some rather startling recent instances of this view in action. Twenty years after the final dissolution of the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Schigolev, a political activist in the Komi Republic (part of the Russian Federation), lodged a lawsuit against the V. Savin Theatre of Academic Drama, claiming 10,000 roubles in moral damages after watching a performance of Hamlet on November 5, 2011 (directed by Oleg Nagornichnyi). In his initial claim, Schigolev described his “complete disenchantment regarding professionalism and spiritual standing” of the theatre, and his “inner turmoil” caused by this modernized staging of the play.[17] Predictably pointing to the key authority of Soviet theatre, he explained that Konstantin Stanislavski would criticize this sort of production, where “bad or incorrect acting does not create an impression of reality” (italics mine); ultimately, however, the issue at stake was the “debasement/degradation of Shakespeare and of the respectable audience.” Schigolev eventually lost his suit, but not until after a formal hearing was held in December 2011, at which he again emphasized his fears that uncontrolled and unconstrained theatrical performance could cause severe moral degradation in the members of the audience and the entire community. In response, experts suggested that, since Shakespeare neglected to specify the precise dating of events in Hamlet, the action of the play could, hypothetically speaking, be taking place in any century. They further argued that the plot of Hamlet did not originate with Shakespeare and, in any case, the production used Pasternak’s somewhat free-handed translation.[18]

The seriousness with which this case was treated clearly demonstrates that in post-Soviet space, Shakespearean drama remains, to an extent, a sacred political property. A stand against “perverting” this sacred property is still seen as a means to bolster one’s influence, and testimony of experts is required to prove that no perversion has taken place. At the same time, Soviet constructs of Shakespeare, deployed by those wishing to question the current socio-political situation on the post-Soviet territory, become a powerful instrument of challenging the status quo, and an informed engagement with Shakespearean drama can enable a theatre to mount a penetrating critique of the state.

The Case of Belarus: Unstable Pasts, Unheard Voices

Belarus presents a particularly interesting case, since, of all the states formed after 1991, it remains one of the most Soviet. Having assumed control in 1994, the dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka still rules the state with an iron hand: elections are rigged, opponents disappear, and theatres are under strict governmental control.[19] At the same time, Belarus continues to struggle with developing a strong national identity, with the continuing debate over the issues of national language and history. In his overview of Belarusian history, Andrew Wilson emphasizes just how fraught with difficulty the issue is: as a traditionally multi-confessional territory located at crossroads and becoming the terrain for multiple wars, drastically affected by the decades of the Soviet regime, with the etymology of its name still in dispute, Belarus lacks solid accumulation of history on which to found its nationhood.[20] The situation is further problematized by the fact that the numbers of people able to speak Belarusian fluently are decreasing, and there are three versions of the language in existence.[21]

The desire and ability to speak Belarusian, as well as the participation in the search for national identity, are obviously not unconnected to the desire for political influence. As Elena Gapova suggests, the pursuit of a national identity clearly originating from pre-Soviet history reflects the interests of the intellectual class, who are concerned with “a general restructuring of political and intellectual spaces” and, moreover, with “opportunities to bring a different group of people into power nationally, to enter the global intellectual market, and to become international players in this field.”[22] These concerns rarely align with the priorities of the general Belarusian population, frequently uninterested either in recovering the pure and authentic national language or in reaching for a national history beyond the Soviet period. The quest for retrieving a solidly defined, uniquely Belarusian past to fuel a passionate sense of united nationhood is, in other words, always doomed to failure. The alternative to this quest, however, is polyglossia: embracing the multiplicity of competing voices (and languages), while acknowledging that no single, stable version of the past may be established.

In a recent essay, Simon Lewis describes the “Belarusian memoryscape” as “haunted not so much by fantastic beasts, as by faint, indistinct echoes of unremembered pasts.”[23] The present project of cultural construction must, as Lewis puts it, reach “beyond a zero-sum game of the politics of national memory” and beyond the insistence that a persuasive version of the national past can and must be uncovered. The case for Belarusian cultural autonomy is to be made not through locating and defending a specific version of its past as a pre-Soviet nation, but through “cosmopolitanization of mourning,” whereby the present is able to establish a conversation with the diverse whispers of multiple “unremembered pasts.”[24] In Lewis’s vision, the local and the global are conflated, and memory is able to “cross boundaries between fact and fiction, across geo-political borders, and in historical time.”[25] Claims to Belarusian cultural autonomy are thus made not through discovering (or creating) a perfectly defined, unique past, but by permitting a multilingual chorus of echoing voices, all equally privileged.

With its considerations of national history and political conflict, as a play (in Bennett’s words) of nostalgia, King Lear is perfectly positioned to serve as a space for these conversations. The Belarus Free Theatre’s performance evokes the Soviet uses of Shakespeare to bolster the state authority and the dissident subversion of these uses while, at the same time, responding to the socio-political situation in post-Soviet Belarus y incorporating traditionally Belarusian clothes and props. The decision of the Belarus Free Theatre to stage King Lear in Belarusian on the Globe stage, and to use more than one dialect, further adds to the sense of polyglossia: multiple versions of reality are competing for representation but ultimately cannot be untangled from one another. As Keren Zaiontz puts it, “the Belarus Free Theatre’s performance of King Lear in Belarusian does not signal the promotion of national cohesion but national rebellion” against the current political situation.[26] Even as this performance must acknowledge the haunting presence of convoluted post-Soviet nostalgia, it ultimately deploys Shakespearean drama to work toward cosmopolitanization of memory and a national identity based on free cultural exchange.

King Lear and the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945)

As the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear opens, the first person on stage is Edmund: he is sitting on a low stool and peeling potatoes into a bucket. His shorn head, black army boots, and an outfit visually alluding to a uniform all suggest that he is serving time in the military. Both Kent and Gloucester have to wheel themselves onto the stage using their mobility devices: their outfits and behaviour signal that these men are military veterans. This opening explicitly gestures at the post-Soviet longing for the lost identity as an ideologically unified and formidable nation by making numerous allusions to the Soviet cult of the Great Patriotic War (the part of the World War II that specifically involved the USSR, beginning with the German invasion of its territory in 1941). Immediately following the invasion, the war became a fruitful opportunity for intense myth-making, generating such potent models of Soviet resilience and martyrdom as Alexey Meresyev, the hero of Boris Polevoy’s canonical novel The Story of a Real Man (Повесть о настоящем человеке, 1946), and Aleksandr Matrosov, popularized by Leonid Lukov’s film Private Aleksandr Matrosov (Солдат Александр Матросов, 1947).[27] In addition to encouraging self-sacrifice, both in military encounters and on the occupied territories, this myth-making was used to counter the sense of alienation in individual republics and present the unified Soviet people rising as a single body to defend their motherland. After the victory of 1945, the memory of the Great Patriotic War became the single most significant aspect of the Soviet national identity: not only did it serve to reinforce the image of the USSR as a valiant nation under constant threat from the West but, simultaneously, was used to dismiss any challenges to the official ideology.[28] As a study by Zhan T. Toshchenko demonstrates, this function has held strong even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to sociological surveys conducted in 1980s and 1990s, the Great Patriotic War remains a key positive historical event in the national consciousness, and the victory of 1945 (unequivocally perceived as the Soviet people’s triumph over fascism) seems to justify the means, including political repressions and strict censorship.[29]

Of course, Belarus directly benefited from this cult due to its extensive participation in anti-German partisan action during the war. Post-1945, it became known as the Partisan Republic and was allotted a certain degree of self-governance, primarily administrated at the local level by the former partisan leaders. Memories of the Great Patriotic War, embodied in the so-called “militaristic-patriotic installations” throughout the country,[30] continue to haunt the landscape, still proclaiming past glories and promising a kind of autonomy. The fact that 2014 was officially declared the year of military tourism in Belarus, with a specific emphasis on the Great Patriotic War memorials, suggests a conscious ongoing investment in the imperial patriotism and a persistent tracing of the national history back to the 1940s.

In the opening scene of King Lear, as staged by the Belarus Free Theatre at the Globe, Kent and Gloucester are linked together precisely by the shared memory of the Great Patriotic War, indelibly written into their bodies. Like the model Soviet “real man” Alexey Meresyev, they have both lost the use of their legs and, despite the visible differences in their social status, share a nostalgic worship of this common past. Kent is easily recognizable as a man brought low by his war injury, not unlike many veterans in the decades following the victory of 1945, who found themselves helpless in a country unwilling to invest in social assistance and support. His cheap sailor-stripe shirt (decorated with four ostentatious military awards), the primitive wooden board with wheels he is using to propel himself along, and the large red accordion he later picks up all identify him as, on the one hand, a man who has sacrificed his limbs to the victory over fascism but, on the other, as a visual metaphor of social and political deterioration. Gloucester, obviously a high-ranking official, appears in a relatively sophisticated wheelchair; at the same time, his authority seems to rely, in an endless feedback loop, on the continuing acknowledgement of the Great Patriotic War as a foundational event in the history of the state and his own history. Explaining his connection with Kent to Edmund, he refers to him as his “баявы таварыш” (old comrade-in-arms” – literally, “battlefield comrade”) rather than “honourable friend” of the original text (1.1.27).

This shared military history, complemented by the two crippled bodies, signifies valuable ideological capital: Kent and Gloucester metaphorically enable the existence of the state and all its members through the ongoing investment of their own bodily wholeness. This connection is made clear when both of these characters lose their privileged associations with the court: Kent is sent into exile by Lear and must assume a new identity, while Gloucester is blinded and left to wander across the heath. Once their connections to power are severed, the need for continued sacrifice of their bodies to the state paradoxically disappears. Thus, Kent is able to walk when he is temporarily transformed from a veteran into a dangerous former convict, appearing to serve the powerless Lear, and Gloucester gingerly picks his way across the heath following the loss of his eyes. Before these transformations, however, Gloucester emphasizes the constant return to the foundational event by forcing Edmund, with a cuff on the head, to recite a snatch of a popular Russian poem, in Belarusian translation.[31] In this verse, like many a Soviet and post-Soviet child, the speaker expresses deep gratitude to the war veterans for their pain and wounds and, performing a rhetorical gesture typical for Soviet poetry, thanks them for his own happy life.[32]

The mockery and threat of violence offered by the two men in the direction of Edmund throughout the scene immediately challenge the claim to happy life produced by the Great Patriotic War. Instead, Edmund’s quasi-military outfit and his lowly position at court suggests a rigid social hierarchy constructed by the military cult that dominated the Soviet Union and remains active in present-day Belarus and Russia. Edmund’s initial appearance serves to localize Gloucester’s explanation that his son has been “away” from home and will go away again. As both men re-enact a sort of cruel slapstick with Edmund as the hapless object of their physical jokes, the audience is given to understand that Edmund has been fed into the military machine and occupies the lowest rank on the hierarchical ladder. Gloucester’s and Kent’s seeming pleasure in asserting their power over him is reinforced when the forged letter from Edgar is revealed. Gloucester reads the letter while urinating in a basin held by Edmund who kneels in front of him, clearly expecting his son not only to anticipate the trajectory of the stream but also not to be repulsed when his wrists are drenched. As a small cog in the military machine, Edmund is barely human to his authoritative father, and the peremptory confiscation of the letter, in this context, testifies to the complete elimination of private space: all intentions must be known, and all resistance is punishable. Through a complex set of visual clues, the Belarus Free Theatre performance redirects the audience from identifying with a bygone greatness to shrinking back in fear at the palpable threat emanating from the unyielding monolith of the Soviet past and the long shadow it casts on the present.

King Lear and the Totalitarian State

At the same time, the production relentlessly references the Belarusian project of self-recognition, after 1991, as an independent country but also as a totalitarian state, and participates in it by meticulously problematizing any and all displays of power and authority in the play. Although Andrew Dickson, the reviewer for The Guardian, called this performance “a Lear returned vividly to its roots: as a comic folktale that shatters into tragedy” and inserted a hyperlink to “King Leir and His Three Daughters,” the Belarus Free Theatre has not intended to explore the play’s English medieval roots.[33] Instead, as Natalia Kaliada, the co-founder of the theatre, puts it in her interview with the Exeunt Magazine, these are the roots of theatre itself as a potent force of political change: “We perform as an act of non-violent resistance, and to prove that we as theatre makers are much stronger than any dictatorship in the world.”[34] Directly responding to the current situation in Belarus, this production of King Lear ponders the imbalances of power created by tyranny, and individual vulnerability inevitably resulting from it.

As the opening scenes make clear, this Lear is, at least partially, a figure reminiscent of the Belarusian dictator Lukashenka. The connection between the two is cemented when Regan, in her hyperbolical song of praise, addresses Lear as “бацька” – a Belarusian word for “father”: this word has, in the last twenty years, become specifically associated with Lukashenka, who styles himself the father of the nation. Lest the audience misses the significance of this word, Regan repeats it several times, pumping her fist up in the air; the cheer is then taken up by the members of the court, while Lear struts around the stage, raising his arms in gratified acknowledgement. This initial connection complicates any sympathy the audience might subsequently feel for the king, and highlights the ongoing power struggle and anxiety about losing one’s authority in a totalitarian state. Departing for the heath, Lear is coldly menacing rather than wounded by his daughters’ betrayal, threatening to return and take back the state power. Not surprisingly, after he has left, Goneril passionately declares to the Duke of Albany her refusal to live in eternal fear: and who can blame her? Mad Lear’s command to “Let copulation thrive […] for I lack soldiers,” thus, becomes less a sign of his desperate ravings than evidence of conscious power hunger that never quite ceases (4.5.114; 117).

The quasi-military figures in standard-issue trousers, black army boots, and white wife-beater shirts, their heads concealed by black stockings, serve as a constant visual reminder of the raw and impersonal force of a totalitarian state that can be readily turned both to humanitarian ends and to cold-blooded murder. Regan orders them to put Kent in stocks; wearing sanitary masks to appear as an emergency response team, they cart Lear away from the heath and into Cordelia’s care. Of course, only a little while later, just as impersonally and mundanely, they take Lear and Cordelia into custody, seemingly unconcerned with any considerations beyond following the orders of those in power.

The Belarus Free Theatre’s decision to stage the interrogation and execution of Cordelia offers a blunt insight into the ruthless depersonalization of victims. In his review, Andrew Dickson argued that forcing the audience to witness this scene “reduces the impact of this most brutal and shocking of acts, and makes a nonsense of Lear’s entrance with her body.” This could perhaps be true if the production simply introduced a dumb show re-enacting Lear’s account of her death. However, instead, the audience sees bored low-rank interrogators, familiar with the procedure and dimly convinced of their own irreproachability, the very embodiment of the banality of evil, cataloguing the valuable items confiscated from their captives. Lear’s metal gauntlet, formerly an imposing symbol of his authority, becomes the target of their silent mockery. The interrogators take turns trying it on, in a visual metaphor for appropriations of authority while Lear addresses Cordelia for the last time in the background. This pairing of the poignant words with a derogatory image denies any hope for future existence in a state without respect for law and justice, even before the final orders are received.

The production does not stop at Cordelia’s death but depicts the totalitarian machine attempting to erase her existence entirely. We see the interrogators, galvanized into action by the appearance of their superior, destroy the record of the search and create a document that links the captives to public unrest, terrorist threat, and economic sanctions. For those who understand Belarusian this is a moment of very black and bleak humour: the Shakespearean heroine’s sentence is composed of the canned rhetoric painfully familiar from the post-Soviet media. At the same time, this destruction of the original record creates a terrifying hole in the dramatic narrative. Where Shakespeare’s text delivers only Lear’s grief over the death of his most loving daughter, the Belarus Free Theatre asks us to witness the stark spectacle of her death – the spectacle that, with the forging of the record, is on the brink of being utterly lost from the human memory. Lear himself, of course, is quite unreliable as a witness: his claim to have “killed the slave that was a-hanging” his daughter is recognized, in this production, as an empty boast by the audience who observed the actual hanging (5.3.251). Excising the neat ending of King Lear, this production creates in the final scene a vacuum of power, in which the living and the dead are given the same theatrical authority and become indistinguishable from one another. A single, authoritative version of national history, based on decisive battles, lives lost, and power gained, is thus rejected, and no promised kingdom is forthcoming.

Conclusions: the Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear and Global Shakespeare

In subverting the audience’s expectations for a cathartic ending in which King Lear fully gains moral and narrative authority, the Belarus Free Theatre forcefully disrupts what Bennett called “a nostalgic identification with greatness.” This production does not look back to Shakespeare’s England as a source of clarity and power, refusing, as it does, to wrap up with a promise of a new, better kingdom. Instead, the production raises the local dead: the three sisters end the performance by singing a mournful Belarusian chant, simultaneously a prayer and a plaintive wail.

This chant is a mourning song for the present-day Belarus, and perhaps for the entire Soviet history, but also for the fetishized illusion of authentic Shakespeare who, speaking through centuries, can offer succinct answers to our burning questions. The Belarus Free Theatre’s production explodes this illusion by staging a spectacular collision between the spectre Peter Holland identified as “our own” Shakespeare, and the Soviet ideological claims to possessing the “true” Shakespeare. Openly acknowledging its inability to step out fully from its own cultural context, this performance embraces Shakespeare produced through amalgamation of versions rather than an attempt to return to a purified original. It suggests that, removed from the purely Western horizon of expectation, Shakespearean drama can perform a decisive rejection of any identification with imagined, unifying greatness, whether it be the Golden Age of merry olde England, the dream of orderly and egalitarian USSR, or the mythical free and happy Belarus governed by its wise father-ruler. Instead, the Belarus Free Theatre draws on a variety of reading practices and haunting memories to make an argument for fluid, cosmopolitan Belarusian identity, while producing powerfully anti-ideological Shakespeare for the new, global age.

Let’s call it Shakespeare’s dancing shadow.

[1] The Tragedy of King Lear: 1623 Folio Text, ed. Stephen Orgel, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, gen. ed. Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 1.4.214-215. All further references are to this edition. Note that the 1608 Quarto gives both lines to Lear.

[2] Andrew Dickson, “King Lear – Review,” The Guardian, May 23, 2012, accessed June 11, 2015 [], comment posted on May 23, 2012 by BimpuraChakrabarti.

[3] Keren Zaiontz, “The Right to the Theatre: The Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear,” in Shakespeare beyond English: Global Experiment, ed. Susan Bennett and Christie Carson (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013), 195-207. See this article for a detailed description of language politics of the performance.

[4] Andrew Haydon, “Belarusian King Lear – The Globe,” Postcards from the Gods, May 19, 2012, last accessed June 11, 2015 []

[5] Reviewed by Lauren Mooney, “King Lear at Globe Theatre,” Exeunt Magazine, 23-28 September, 2013, last accessed June 11, 2015 []

[6] These questions were reinvoked, for example, during the Global Shakespeare session at the Renaissance Society of America conference (2015), and especially by the presenters Katherine Schaap Williams and David Schalkwyk.

[7] Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 39.

[8] Ibid., 77.

[9] Peter Holland, “More Russian than a Dane: The Usefulness of Hamlet in Russia,” in Translating Life: Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics, ed. Shirley Chew and Alistair Stead (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), 315-338, esp. 316.

[10] Because the Fool is speaking in trasyanka, a colloquial mixture of Russian and Belarusian, he uses the Belarusian word for “shadow,” which is “цень” rather than “тень.”

[11] The considerations of meter do not allow for a literal translation, as the Russian word for “ghost” is the five-syllable “привидение.” Pasternak’s more recent translation uses “дух” [spirit] instead, while the phrase “Hamlet’s father’s shadow” began its own independent existence in the colloquial language.

[12] Mikhail Morozov, Shakespeare on the Soviet Stage, trans. David Magarshack, with an introduction by J. Dover Wilson (London: Soviet News, 1947).

[13] Ibid., 13.

[14] Ibid., 41.

[15] See Vladimir Brovkin, Russia after Lenin: Politics, Culture and Society, 1921-1929 (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), see esp. chapter one, “Extracting Socially Alien Elements.”

[16] Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[17] The text of this claim is widely available in the Russian sector of the Internet after Schigolev posted it in the opinion section of the Komi news site 7×7: Novosti, mneniia, blogi, posted on December 13, 2011, last accessed June 11, 2015 [http://7×]. Interestingly, this seems to be part of his self-promotional campaign, as he ran for a position in the National Council of the republic in 2012 and, most recently, in September 2014. A severely truncated description of the events in English with no author’s name provided is available at “Ophelia Raped in Russian Theater, Hamlet at Large,” RT, posted on December 18, 2011, last accessed June 11, 2015 [].

[18] The response of the experts is given in the formal verdict, available on the Komi news site 7×7: Novosti, mneniia, blogi, posted by Rebekka Magomedova as “Gamlet. Reshenie suda,” on December 27, 2011, last accessed June 11, 2015 [http://7×].

[19] David R. Marples offers a detailed examination of the early years of Lukashenka’s reign in Belarus: A Denationalized Nation (Amsteldijk: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999). See also Andrew Wilson, Belarus: The Last Dictatorship in Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011) for a description of more recent events, including the rigged election in 2010.

[20] Wilson, Belarus: The Last Dictatorship in Europe.

[21] Wilson, 123-12.

[22] Elena Gapova, “The Nation In Between; Or, Why Intellectuals Do Things with Words,” in Over the Wall/After the Fall: Post-communist Cultures through an East-West Gaze, ed. Sibelan Forrester, Magdalena J. Zaborowska, and Elena Gapova (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 65-87, esp. 85

[23] Simon Lewis, “Toward Cosmopolitan Mourning: Belarusian Literature between History and Politics,” in Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe, ed. Uilleam Blacker, Alexander Etkind, and Julie Fedor (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 195-216, esp. 202.

[24] Lewis, 213; 202.

[25] Ibid., 213.

[26] Keren Zaiontz, “The Right to the Theatre: The Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear,” 196.

[27] The emphasis on unequivocal admiration and emulation of such models was brilliantly parodied in Viktor Pelevin’s post-Soviet novella “Omon-Ra” (1992), the characters of which are forced to undergo the same mutilations as the sanctified heroes so as to demonstrate the strength of their dedication to the state.

[28] See, for example, Nina Tumarkin, The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia (New York: Basic Books, 1994).

[29] Zhan T. Toshchenko, “Historical Consciousness and Historical Memory: An Analysis of the Current Situation,” Russian Studies in History 49.1 (2010): 37-52, esp. 41-42.

[30] I borrow the term from the Belorussian Military Newspaper, published by the Defence Ministry of the Republic of Belarus (“Partisan Republic: Concluding the Year of Military Tourism,” interview by Anna Karpuk, issue 230, 10.12.2014, Not only does this publication construct a mythical history for itself, claiming that it has been published under different titles since 1921 (the year when the Bolshevik government and the Republic of Poland came to an agreement in dividing the Belarusian lands and signed the Treaty of Riga), but it is also is published in Russian and uses the outdated Soviet spelling for its title, suggesting an active alignment with the pre-dissolution past (on the information page:

[31] Edmund recites a loose translation of the concluding lines from Aleksandr Frolov’s “Bowing to the Ground” (Земной поклон): “За вашу боль, за ваши раны, / За жизнь счастливую мою, / Земной поклон вам, ветераны!” (For your pain, for your wounds, / For my happy life, / I bow to the ground to you, veterans!”. These lines proliferate, in various incarnations, over the Russian Internet. By now, they have become an authorless meme, placed on postcards, borrowed by inspiration sites, and frequently incorporated into inept but patriotic poetic creations posted online.

[32] This expression of thanks is immediately reminiscent of the Soviet slogan, typically placed into the mouths of children and used without the slightest sense of irony: “Спасибо товарищу Сталину за наше счастливое детство!” (We thank Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood!). Both sentiments point to the assumption that one’s personal happiness necessarily constituted a debt to others’ sacrifice, but also the assumption that, after the sacrifice had been made (whether Comrade Stalin’s or the veterans’), one was duty-bound, as a citizen, to be happy.

[33] Andrew Dickson, “King Lear – Review,” The Guardian, May 23, 2012, assessed June 11, 2015 [].

[34] Ella Parry-Davies, “The Total Immersion Method” (Interview with Natalia Kaliada, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre), Exeunt Magazine, September 19, 2013, last accessed June 11, 2015 [].

Natalia Khomenko is an Instructor at York University in Toronto, Canada, where she received her Ph.D. in English in 2013. Her research interests include early modern drama, hagiographic and martyrological literature, literary adaptation, and Global Shakespeare studies. Her current project explores the cult of Shakespeare in the Soviet Union, and the strategies of selective reading and active refashioning used to produce ideologically sound socialist versions of Shakespearean drama.


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