Thank you, Hogarth Books, for this copy of Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn. All thoughts and images are my own.
Synopsis: (as told by the back of the book)
William Shakespeare’s King Lear retold as Dunbar
Henry Dunbar, the once all-powerful head of a global media corporation, is not having a good day. In his dotage he hands over care of the corporation to his two eldest daughters, Abby and Megan, but as relations sour he starts to doubt the wisdom of past decisions.
Now imprisoned in Meadowmeade, an upscale sanatorium in rural England, with only a demented alcoholic comedian as company, Dunbar starts planning his escape. As he flees into the hills, his family is hot on his heels. But who will find him first, his beloved youngest daughter, Florence, or the tigresses Abby and Megan, so keen to divest him of his estate?
This book is the latest in one of my favorite series, the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Hogarth commissions modern novelists to choose a Shakespeare play and create whatever novel adaptation it inspires them to create. And King Lear is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.
But this adaptation simply fell flat for me. I initially enjoyed being sucked back into Lear’s world and comparing this version of the tale to the many versions I’ve seen on stage (I’ve seen some amazing productions of this play. I will never forget Simon Russell Beale as Lear at the National Theater). However, I felt Aubyn’s interpretation was not at all inventive, given the actual text.
Theoretically, his updated setting makes sense. Maybe my familiarity with the original text was my downfall, but this adaptation felt cowardly. Aubyn shied away from the most iconic scenes – King Lear is a challenge. There are a number of infamous scenes that are notoriously difficult to stage in a way that feels honest. The two that stick out in my mind the most are the division of King Lear’s property and the blinding of Gloucester. These two scenes are essential to the story, so the director must make a decision about how to stage each.
Aubyn made no such decisions. He simply omitted them. The division of Lear’s property was mentioned in passing with no reference to one of the most famous lines in the entire Shakespearean canon: “Nothing.” This is a missed opportunity. Entire novels could be written around the potential motivations of that one line.
The blinding of Gloucester is also a theatrical challenge – it is a painful and visceral scene but torture on stage must be treated carefully. Too gratuitous and it alienates the audience. But when done well, it can be incredibly powerful. Aubyn makes absolutely no mention of this scene.
I don’t expect adaptations to stick to the story entirely faithfully but these are two examples of scenes that are ripe for reinterpretation that Aubyn completed ignored. I did not feel this was an artful adaptation of one of the greatest stories.
Interested in this book? Buy it here on Amazon or find it at your local bookstore.