Last night, I saw Shakespeare’s King Lear performed at the Newman theater by the Public Theater of NY city, directed by James Macdonald and featuring Sam Waterston (of TV’s Law and Order fame) as King Lear. It was the opening night and the theater was packed. I should make it clear at the outset that it is hard to mess up Shakespeare’s plays. The lines are so powerful that even a lackluster actor couldn’t spoil their effect. Not that these actors were in any way lackluster. Richard Topol (The Duke of Albany), Kelli O’Hara (Regan), and even Sam Waterston (Lear) may have flubbed their lines once or twice, but no matter. Goneril (Enid Graham) and Regan were outstanding. Only Cordelia (Kristen Connolly) was a bore. The actress looked angelic but she wasn’t the quiet-but-strong person she should have been; she definitely lacked conviction. She was limp with no firmness to the voice, and no queenly elegance. She looked scared to death of Lear.
I always supposed King Lear to be a large, tall man with a mighty voice that was fit to bellow at the storm, getting old and bent almost overnight. Waterston’s voice suited the character even if his appearance did not suit my mental image of King Lear. Gloucester’s performance was understated. I remember reading the scene in which Edgar (disguised as Tom) pretends to lead his father up the cliffs of Dover so he can hurl himself down to his death–that is such a poignant scene, it has all the potential of Lear’s melodrama–would be funny too, if it weren’t so tragic. Michael McKean as Gloucester made it seem quite flat– the pathos of the scene didn’t quite come through. Stoicism seemed to cover up his introspection and anguish. Less certainly wasn’t more here. Arian Moayed made a good Edgar, a little too trusting of Edmund in the beginning, frightened into disguising himself as Tom O’Bedlam and gradually developing strength as he faces one trauma after another.
The stage was mostly bare except for a table here and a bench there. However, the actors still managed to make it quite untidy. They did not take the props out with them as they normally do in Shakespearean plays. But all this emphasized the chaos created by Lear. He opened up the Pandora’s box and let evil loose upon the world. I normally quote Shakespeare for everything but this time I choose Yeats to describe the havoc King Lear caused by his vanity and ego:–
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(The Second Coming)
I think the stage was a little too close to the audience. The tales that concern nobility and royalty have to be a little removed from the common man. I didn’t understand why the actors crowded at the edge of the stage when there was so much space behind them that was not being used. The chain link curtain was awesome but it kept moving and pushing the actors to the front of the stage. Obviously there is some significance to that; maybe it gave a physical depth to the heath when the curtain finally fell and the starkness of the setting was revealed. I loved the lightning and the thunder. The characters of the play, exposed to the elements saw with utmost clarity the deepest truths that lay as naked as poor Tom (Edgar).
What/who did I like the best in the play? The fool–played by Bill Irwin. The “all-licensed fool”(I,iv). He portrayed the right mixture of innocence, mischief, humor, grief, bewilderment and sarcasm, disappearing when King Lear took over his job (the world wasn’t big enough for the two of them to be fools). Besides there were too many mad men running loose on the heath that stormy night. Seth Gilliam as Edmund did a great job as a sly, conniving charmer, as did John Douglas Thompson as the loyal (to Lear) Kent.
I give it a 4 out 5 rating.