On paper, it sounds almost like a parody, and in the wrong hands, it could be. “It” is a mashup of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Verdi’s Requiem, with an actress playing King Lear and Giuseppe Verdi, both at once, while at the same time eight singing actors offer the Requiem, both choral and solo parts, in its entirety.
Rather than a parody, though, the work - called “The Promised End” - is a revelation. By daring to lay hands on canonical works - breaking them up, recombining them, questioning them - the piece shatters the carapace that tends to grow up around pieces that have been enshrined by tradition, so-called Great Works of Art. In place of familiar monuments, this performance confronts us with the rawness that all Great Works had when they were first created: the uncomfortable, unresolved, naive presence of something naked and new.
This has a visceral impact. When you sit in a small space that resounds with powerful, beloved music and words mined anew for their dramatic meaning, even passages you thought you knew well suddenly appear with an emotional directness that bypasses reason or analysis.
It also becomes intensely personal. The experience of seeing this piece has stayed with me over the years, and yet it hit me on such an intimate level that I was almost uncertain about whether anyone else might feel as strongly moved as I had been.
Lovers of past art can become complacent. When you know that the piece you’ve heard is an acknowledged masterwork, there’s little risk in asserting that it’s “great,” whether it’s King Lear or the Sistine Chapel. But that complacency can make us forget that art is personal, and challenging, and can hit different people in different ways. We shouldn’t all like the same things. We shouldn’t be so certain of our traditions and our verities that our minds can’t be changed - or expanded! - by a new perspective. That, after all, is the original point of the exercise. So it’s a thrill to see Verdi and Shakespeare put back onto the figurative tightrope while the audience wonders, hearts pounding, whether they can pull it off.
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