Oh, how the audience sighs during King Lear.
While some theatrical audiences want an escape, others want an outlet, and want to express collectively the experience of living in a moment. On stage, any direct reference to the Trump administration or (more usually) anything that could be construed as a reference to countries in chaos and the faults, crimes, and frailties of leaders is received in these times with a collective lowing of recognition.
Staging King Lear in 2019 at the Cort Theatre on Broadway (to July 7), with its themes of madness, corruption, and familial and political venality, there is enough audience lowing to make the theater sound like its own barnyard.
Of course, there is so much to sigh over, and so many famous lines that are so acute: “Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind” and “Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile; Filths savour but themselves...”; “As flies are we...” and so on.
The joy of watching Glenda Jackson as Lear in Sam Gold’s lean and clear production is that she doesn’t approach every well-known speech or phrasing at a grandiloquent gallop. Jackson’s most noticeable verbal extravagance is an almost comically elongated rolling of her r’s, and so “crawl” becomes crrrrrrrrrawl.” (She also played Lear in 2016 in the U.K., though in a different, critically hailed production; it too rang with the present-day echoes of Brexit.)
This is a cast that honors, has thought about, then handsomely delivers Shakespeare’s greatest words, and—mission accomplished—the audience this critic sat within was rapt for three-plus hours.
Its only fault, and it was a significantly intrusive one for this critic, is a group of musicians who for some unknown, deeply grating reason, have been stationed at the back of the stage. Yes, this Lear comes with its own mini-orchestra, and if there is one thing that Shakespeare at his most tragic and magisterial doesn’t need, it’s music, and certainly not this wheedling affectation.
If you have ever felt cheaply manipulated by string quartet-leavened TV drama, it is even more annoying when it infects a three hour-plus stage production of Shakespeare. Glenda Jackson does not need an accompanying violin to let us know she is upset.
Jackson’s Lear comes in a tailored man’s suit, her hair neatly parted, nothing grand even when she’s supposed to be. Later, in Lear’s madness, she’s in casual rags. We don’t know what era it is: 20th century, the late ’40s maybe, but via Ann Roth’s costuming, the characters are as effectively detached from time as they are from gender.
The colors of the dresses hark back to Shakespearean times past; the men’s suiting bring us into the 20th century. The blurring makes this Lear both past and present, universal in whatever time.
This is not a booming Lear. Jackson has an insistent rasp, which occasionally curdles to scorn and when Lear is losing his mind to something more bird-like and infantile.
Her voice is accented with her native North of England, and this Lear has an immediately recognizable chippy, impatient anger. He may have lost a kingdom, but he is his own kingdom, thank you very much. Now bugger off.
One friend said he hadn’t liked Jackson’s performance, but her verbally and emotionally capricious stage command is magnetic, and also generously sized enough to let her fellow performers shine.
Lear’s Fool is played by Ruth Wilson (the super-screwed up Alison from The Affair), who also plays Cordelia. Wilson inhabits both characters so utterly you may be surprised to consult your Playbill and find the two characters share one actor.
This is not the pure of spirit and victim-y Cordelia, dressed in flowing white; but a watchful one, dressed in black. When her vicious and venal sisters Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan) are splashing compliments on their father, their faces betray silently chewing glass.
Wilson’s Cordelia already knows their game, and that her own game—honesty and decency—is up. She knows her father wants flattery, she will only supply a clear-eyed, even-minded love.
That is not enough for Lear, and this production, like many others, shows all three sisters laboring at least initially as a trio under what an old, impossible goat he is. Cordelia is banished for not being able to say what—as the play famously puts it at another moment—she “ought to say.”
Then, as the Fool, Wilson is like a young swaggering butch upstart to Lear’s increasing ditheriness. She swaggers and mugs to the audience, affects a geezer-ish East End of London accent, tumbles and sidles, and watch out for what she does with a carrot. She and Lear are like their own Laurel and Hardy, with Wilson sporting some very meaningful American-flag printed socks.
Jayne Houdyshell’s Gloucester is the solid moral fulcrum the play demands; and the plucking out of his eyes so vicious my seat neighbors audibly gasped, looked away, or clutched armrests. Marvel and Gold give Goneril a graphic moment of sexual self-expression, which may also surprise a few, while O’Sullivan’s Regan becomes the more frightening sister, her voice a rising vindictive roar.
The object of their affection, Pedro Pascal’s villainous Edmund, is a schemer addicted to his own craft, and—like a really good perfume demonstrator—very keen to tell us about it.
Also wait, and wish you could have as a recorded message, for John Douglas Thompson as the Earl of Kent delivering a ringing denunciation of Matthew Maher’s Oswald, Goneril’s steward. Every word is a heartily enunciated scything of air: “A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave…” And, wow, the rest.
Gold is the director, and gold is the main decorative accent of Miriam Beuther’s stage design, again in maybe a Trumpian nod. There are no attempts at blasted heaths or high cliffs, or ornately imagined palace chambers. Instead, we have walls of glittering gold, with simple benches down the sides, and tables and black and gold royal standards.
The director Gold takes this room apart, as villainy is executed and minds are shattered, leading ultimately to a room of thrown chairs and broken tables when the storm hits.
The glittering walls brighten and darken; and a coppery stage curtain falls—the theater plunged into darkness with staccato flashes of light and sound-booms—when the storm comes.
Shakespeare thinks people are foolish to invest so much in astrology, the notion that the stars make us “villains by necessity.” The play is a board game of opposing impulses. Edmond, Goneril, and Regan want power, not paternal love. The powerful retreat to unadorned, humbling nature when they are cast out in the play.
A desire for control and influence is replaced by vulnerability, love, and connection. Lear imagines simply playing with Cordelia when they are reunited. Gloucester comes to see when he is blind, and he is saved by his son Edgar, who dresses as the lowest while behaving the noblest.
The scale and scope of the tragedy at the end of the play is Shakespeare’s own final horrified caution at how the forces of corruption can destroy minds as well as lands.
The lines said with most feeling during the play—“Reason not the need…”, “Say what we feel, not what we out to say”—are cautions against indulging the worst within ourselves and in our behavior in the world.
So sigh unhappily away at the play’s final cataclysm of blood and bodies. Shakespeare did too, and likely wanted us to do the same while watching it.