Music by John Casken
Text by Shakespeare, adapted from King Lear by John Tomlinson and John Casken
The Shackled King is a condensed version of Shakespeare’s great play King Lear, taking the very essence of it, namely Lear’s estrangement from his daughter Cordelia and their reconciliation.
The work is for two singers with a small ensemble. The role of Lear is sung by a bass, and Cordelia by a mezzo-soprano who also briefly plays the two sisters, Goneril and Regan, in the scene in which Lear divides his kingdom. The mezzo-soprano also sings the part of the King’s philosophical friend, the Fool who enables the King to emerge from madness to discover wisdom and recognise some hard truths.
The sequence of events is not chronological, and although all the words are Shakespeare’s, the text takes liberties with the sequence of events. The work starts at the end of the play where the King and Cordelia are in prison, he hardly recognising his daughter. Through a series of flashbacks the story is told, but returns to the present, in prison, a number of times. Musically, the work begins in a dark place and the grief-stricken and angry King is battered by the storm along the way. At the same time, there are tender and tragic moments when the King acknowledges what he has lost in banishing Cordelia, and lighter moments too with the Fool’s humour and jocular wisdom.
The singing style for both singers embraces the full range from naturally spoken, to rhythmicised speech, to heightened and exaggerated speech with approximate pitches, to half-sung/half-spoken (‘sprechgesang’), to fully sung lines. Such a range allows for the delivery of Shakespearean text as a fluid continuum from one into the other, suggested by the moods of the lines.
The work is shaped in the following way:
Prologue: Lear and Cordelia in prison
Sc.1: Lear and Cordelia re-live the story and the division of the kingdom (prison scene briefly recalled)
Sc.2: Lear is alone with the Fool
(prison scene briefly recalled)
Sc.3: Lear and the Fool in the storm and hovel
Sc.4: Lear and Cordelia in prison
Epilogue: Lear realises that Cordelia is dead and his Fool hanged
The work is called The Shackled King because the shackle not only suggests imprisonment, but the King is also undeniably tied to his daughter. He is also constrained by the actions and consequences from that fateful day when he divided his kingdom and bound by the weight of responsibility.