Arts Listings

Arts: What Happened to King Lear’s Daughters’ Mother? By BETSY HUNTON Special to the Planet

Friday March 03, 2006

Seven Lears which opens tonight on the campus at Zellerbach Playhouse will close after next weekend.  

For good solid academic reasons, the university’s Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies customarily limits plays to two week runs, completely irrespective of the production’s success.  

On the other hand, what they’re offering is quite often worth a lot more than they charge. Tickets for large, elaborately costumed productions—such as Seven Lears—run $14 for adults and $8 for seniors. And this play has 20 actors, a number of whom are playing multiple roles.  

Another plus is that the university is in an enviable position to stage some of the more challenging productions, plays that more commercially oriented companies don’t dare attempt. And thus we now have a rare chance to see a play from what the controversial British playwright Howard Barker has dubbed “the theater of catastrophe.”  

Barker, who has established an important name for himself in Europe, has been largely ignored in Great Britain—which might tell you something about the nature of his thought. He may, however, be finding a more accepting venue in the United States. Stanford just completed a production of Barker’s The Castle on Feb. 18, and their director, Daniel Sack, will come to Berkeley to take part in a panel discussion about the playwright on March 7 (free admission).  

In Seven Lears Barker is exploring—and answering—an important question that may not have been significantly addressed in Shakespearean criticism: What happened to King Lear’s daughters’ mother? As Barker says in his Introduction to the play:  

“The Mother is denied existence in King Lear. She is barely quoted even in the depths of rage or pity. She was therefore expunged from memory … She was therefore the subject of an unjust hatred…” 

While some of us might dispute Barker’s conclusion that the only logical explanation for the family’s behavior is “an unjust hatred” of their mother, it still remains an interesting possibility.  

And it does provide a fascinating basis for his own play.  

Barker goes on to provide a biography of Lear through seven stages—from childhood  

to where Shakespeare starts the story we all probably know. Lear, (admirably played by Nicholas Le Provost, who barely leaves the stage throughout the entire production) and his brothers are somehow convincing as children, although fully grown actors. That’s not easy. 

While Lear, of course, dominates the story, the women in his life—some of whom you’ve never met before—are given significant importance.   

Frankly, it’s rather satisfying.  

One of the significant innovations Barker has explored is in the use of language. He has made no effort to re-create an Elizabethan usage, but has developed some significant innovations that are remarkably successful in creating realistic spoken language as we hear it. In more than one instance he has, for example, given the actor abruptly incomplete sentences. They just stop in mid-flight, period.  

It’s startling to read, of course. But it turns out to be extraordinarily realistic when it is heard from an actor. That’s the way we talk: Those attractive so-called “incomplete”  

sentences that trail off so carefully on written pages need to be looked at more carefully.  

In one such detail Barker has challenged a major, commonly accepted, standard of writing.  

No wonder so many of the Brits don’t like him.  


UC Berkeley’s theater department presents Seven Lears at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays at the Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC campus though March 19. Tickets $8-$14. For more information, call 642-9925 or see