On occasion I marvel at the insight and wisdom shown by the Elizabethan lad Will Shakespeare, not to mention the poetry and imagination and drive that helped him create a basket of enduring work for the stage. He is more revived than anyone, and his major works are revisited and edited and reshaped; they are even musicalized and adapted on occasion; and even in that foreign genre, they entertain. Just think “Kiss Me, Kate,” “The Boys From Syracuse,” “Twelfth Night,” even the number one hit “Hamlet” which morphed into “Rockabye Hamlet” for four days in 1976. It did not entertain, and it folded quickly.
“King Lear” is not likely to attract musicalization. But on its own, it has never been at the top of my list of favorites. In its first scene, it presents us with ancient Britain’s mighty king who, declaring his desire to bequeath his three daughters with all his earthly possessions, the percentage to each one to be determined by how much love for him they confess. Regan and Goneril, the two older daughters fling themselves upon him with cries of devotion that would make a sane man blush. Goneril says she loves him “more than eyesight, space and liberty” among a lot of other things. Regan, the middle daughter, claims that Goneril “comes too short” and that she will make herself “an enemy to all other joys.” Cordelia, the youngest, the King’s favorite finds her love “more ponderous that my tongue.” She tells him that when she marries, she will carry “half my love with him, half my care and duty.” This does not sit well with Dad, and he disinherits her, disowns her, and asks her to “avoid my sight.” All of her dowry will now go to her sisters.
From that moment on, I find it difficult to spend the next three hours caring very much about this dominating tyrant whose ability to “shake all cares and business from our age, conferring them on younger strengths, while we unburdened, crawl toward death.” It is only the incredible strength in Glenda Jackson’s projection of Lear’s views and attitudes that makes this first scene crackle with conflict and contradiction. Playwright Shakespeare has seen fit to fill the tale that follows with a dozen principal characters, most of whom let us in on their conniving and foolish ways, leading to oblivion for virtually one and all. There are husbands and suitors for the three sisters, and each will ask us to follow his story. There is also the Duke of Gloucester (played by the always interesting Jane Houdyshell in the current tide of inclusion of crossover casting). The Duke is destined for a very unhappy ending, but the fine actress who plays him brings him to life throughout.
Elizabeth Marvel and Ruth Wilson play Goneril and Regan well, but their speech patterns are so unique that it’s difficult to imagine them being brought up under the same tutelage. Ms. Wilson is so very different in her approach to her other role (the Fool who constantly attends Lear) that I did not realize she was double cast until I checked the playbill. I thought the Fool was freshly conceived by her, but I had great difficulty in understanding much of what she said, so hidden it was by a thick cockney accent. As the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany (husbands to Regan and Goneril) Russell Harvard and Dion Johnstone do yeoman work, as do the others playing Cordelia’s suitors and other peripheral characters.
Philip Glass’ original incidental music is played throughout by a formally dressed quartet of violins, viola, and cello who pop up now and then, sometimes having to fight the acting company for space. Miriam Buether’s set design is lavish and bright, though I don’t know why there is so much gold in its castles’ walls. And the violent storm that drives King Lear mad is performed in front of the show curtain, forcing it into limited space downstage.
It’s always apparent that director Sam Gold who has always favored implementing texts and defying tradition in casting had strong views on such matters in this production as well. If you examine his casting on “A Doll’s House — Part 2” and “The Glass Menagerie” you’ll find other excellent examples of his signature written boldly on both. It makes for interesting viewing, although in the case of “King Lear,” we sometimes seem to be watching two or three versions simultaneously.
The binding force of course is Glenda Jackson’s Lear. She played him before in an earlier London production in which she had a different supporting cast and director. For that effort she took home the Evening Standard Award and the Critics’ Circle Award for best performance in Shakespeare. Her relationship with Lear lived on after her London run for she is alert, alive, and full of complexity in this current outing in showing us a man who learns too late that his ability to judge character is far too limited and judgmental. To further favor us as apology for the 30 year leave from theater she took to serve in Parliament, she won a ton more important awards for her central role in Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” on Broadway. Any student of the performing arts should see this current outing just to know what heights to reach for when tackling the classical roles.
I still believe the play is too long at three and 3/4 hours, and it trickled along in the several scenes that followed the one on the heath where Lear has a breakthrough that sends him into total madness. There was a version of the play that replaced it in theaters for 150 years because the public did not embrace Shakespeare’s text. In revision, Lear recovered from madness, apologized to Cordelia (the daughter he had banished from his sight) and reclaimed her as the rightful heir to the throne. It was far more popular than the source play, but it was withdrawn ultimately because those who guarded Shakespeare’s plays demanded it. To this day, there are those who consider it the Bard’s great masterwork; and others, like me, who think this demanding king/father was the root of most of the tragic events that followed him to the grave.