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Unhappy new Lear - ‘Dunbar’

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Edward St. Aubyn reimagines Shakespeare’s “King Lear”

I’ve made no secret of my love for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, the Crown Publishing imprint featuring a series of literary takes on the works of Shakespeare by contemporary authors. As a lover of both the Bard and contemporary fiction, I am always thrilled when the newest offering crosses my desk.

That newest offering is “Dunbar” (Hogarth Shakespeare, $25), a new look at “King Lear” from the pen of acclaimed author Edward St. Aubyn. It’s a scathingly modern take that still retains much of the pain and power of the original, staying true to Lear’s spirit in some compelling and unexpected ways.

(For the record, this marks the sixth in the series. The previous five are as follows: “A Winter’s Tale” (“The Gap of Time” by Jeanette Winterson), “The Merchant of Venice” (“My Name is Shylock” by Howard Jacobson), “The Taming of the Shrew” (“Vinegar Girl” by Anne Tyler), “The Tempest” (“Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood) and “Othello” (“New Boy” by Tracy Chevalier).)

Not so long ago, Canadian media mogul Henry Dunbar was one of the most powerful men on the planet. He has built his company into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, an empire that is the envy of tycoons the world over.

But things aren’t going so well now.

Thanks to the ongoing machinations and manipulations of his daughters Abigail and Megan (along with an unsubtle pharmaceutical push from his compromised and very greedy personal physician), Dunbar finds himself powerless. The scheme has led to him handing the reins to his two wicked daughters and he himself being confined to a posh English sanitarium called Meadowmeade.

Addled and confused as he is (through no fault of his own), Dunbar knows that he must plan for his escape. His only ally in this quest is a disgraced alcoholic television comedian named Peter, but he knows that he must find his way home.

Meanwhile, Dunbar’s youngest daughter Florence – the only one who truly loves him for him, yet also the one cruelly ousted from his life and estate – is trying desperately to find him, hoping only to set right their relationship and find a way for them to forgive one another for slights both real and imagined.

The race is on as Florence tries to track down her father before her sinister sisters can follow through on their devious plan to completely seize control of the Dunbar Corporation and satisfy their own insatiable hunger for the power that such control could bring them.

But a willingness to betray can swing in many directions. Lies and deceptions begin to pile up as many of the players involved make choices that benefit only themselves – or ultimately no one at all. All as the fate of a mighty empire dangles in the balance.

This is an absolutely brilliant shift of setting; the notion of Lear as media mogul suits the soul of the story to a tee. A business empire operating on such a massive scale is a beautiful analogue to the kingdom of Lear, while the vagaries of modern finance allow for just as much self-interested backstabbing as any tale of royal intrigue.

One of the more uncanny aspects of the Hogarth Shakespeare experience is the exquisite matchmaking that has been done in bringing together play and author … and they’ve absolutely nailed it once again. St. Aubyn has made his name in the realm of family drama, so it’s no surprise that he’s well-suited to reinventing what is perhaps the Bard’s ultimate example of familial dysfunction.

What really makes “Dunbar” sing in narrative terms is the author’s ability to hone in on key personality elements of each character and find ways to twist and/or amplify them. There’s an unwavering intensity to his portrayal of not just events, but reactions to those events. The end result is a story that feels wholly new while still remaining completely recognizable.

It’s incredible to see, quite frankly.

“Lear” is one of Shakespeare’s most widely-read plays. It is also one of his most tragic. It is a tale of both deterioration and renewal – often at the same time. Capturing that tone requires a blend of delicacy and bluntness … a blend that sits front and center in “Dunbar.”

Powerful, compelling family drama of the first order – that’s what Edward St. Aubyn gives us here. It is a churning whirlwind of a book, inviting the reader to tear through pages to an almost compulsive degree. Sharp and smart and exceptionally written, “Dunbar” is yet another outstanding addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare catalog.

“I am even the natural fool of fortune!” – Lear, “King Lear,” Act IV, scene vi


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