I worked on King Lear with first-year Columbia director Anna Rebek, who came to me with a conception of King Lear set in 1960’s cult.
The power structures, the cult of personality, and the delusional, drug-laden culture present in a cult context fit perfectly with the themes of King Lear – but as with all modernizations of Shakespeare, it is difficult to execute a natural transplant. Much of the book had to be cut to fit into a venue-mandated run time of an hour and a half, but the language that remained was largely unchanged, meaning the aural aspects of the show were in danger of being fragmented between time periods: the archaic English of the spoken lines, and the music of the 60’s: an indispensable aspect of cult culture.
The idea to integrate the two was to focus on the shamanistic, mystical aspect of the music, allowing the speech in the text to be a purposeful, religious choice by the followers of the cult. For the climactic fight scenes I used looped samples of Pink Floyd songs, overlaid with additional percussion and delay effects, to create the repetitive texture of chant:
The show opens with the actors entering in a line and arranging themselves into a pyramid-shaped tableau, mimicking the structures of power in the relationships between characters. This structure is held as the actors hum, chant and sway, which is the primary way the director works to establish the cult setting in the first scene. To support that, I created an echoing ambience from stretched samples of gongs and wind, layered together to evoke the large, high-ceilinged spaces common to houses of worship. An unmodified sample of a gong was used to cue to actors to “wake” from their trance and begin Act I.
The play utilizes many trumpeting cues to signal arrivals of nobility and of the armies during the battle scenes: these could fit within the aural framework through a change in instrumentation: electric guitars and synthesizers have a similar timbre to trumpets (many synthesizers have presets specifically mimicing brass), and could bring the necessary energetic fanfare without losing the feel of 60s progressive rock.
The storm had no need for alternate instrumentation: nature was as much a part of ecstatic psyche in Shakespeare’s time as it was in the 60’s.