… not in our stars …
The cast is so star studded* that it’s surprising that this production comes out no more than a serviceable Lear. But that’s still a lot: since it’s such a great play, and all the words (except for the Fool) come across with full clarity it’s a rewarding evening. You understand all the actions, motivations, and entanglements of the plot and come out feeling you have an enhanced understanding of the play. That’s worthwhile. The language seems immediate, not distant. Good. But the poetic power is damped, and the production seems disjointed.
I went to see this Lear because I have been fascinated by Sam Waterston’s brilliance as an actor on Law and Order and so wanted to see him on stage. It turns out that as Lear, he’s best in the quieter scenes, the ones that lend themselves to just the sorts of tv close-ups we’re used to seeing him in. We watch his face registering evolving situations with great subtlety, calculating, negotiating, gauging his own responses — you see his mind at work. But in the passionately emotional scenes, such as Lear on the heath, or the death of Cordelia, he strains. Not that he holds back — he reaches courageously for big, but it eludes his grasp. Darn it. He looks silly — not tragic or even pitiful — shuffling around in his long johns with one shoe on and one shoe off. A lot of poor decisions were made in the staging of this play.
The most compelling performance — by one of the greatest actors in the world today — is John Douglas Thompson as Lear’s loyal follower, the Earl of Kent. Thompson’s Kent is vigorous, wily, and self-sacrificing, ready for any task, physical or mental, to protect the King and the Kingship. Thompson brings his rare physical power and athleticism to the role: to convey an urgent moment, he takes the breadth of the stage in three strides. He’s miscast though, as Kent who, at times, verges on the obsequious, not Thompson’s natural mode by a long shot. I would like to see him as Lear.
Bill Irwin, a great clown, is miscast here as the Fool. A Fool isn’t a clown — different meanings, different purposes — but Irwin plays the role as a clown, including clown face make-up (white face, short red vertical lines above the eyes), baggy costume and oversize, floppy shoes. I sure missed the motley! Most important, the odd, fascinating closeness between Lear and his Fool is lost. These two hardly seem to know one another. Also Irwin is the only member of the cast who can’t always be understood.
The other roles are generally well played by experienced and well known actors who speak Shakespeare’s language with clear naturalism. Still, the characters often seem emotionally separate, their words and actions foregone conclusions governed by the lines of the play rather than by their responses to one another, as if they’d rehearsed their parts too much by themselves, and not enough together.
The straightforward content, if not the full emotional and dimensions and poetry, comes across. Seeing this play is a reasonable way to get to know better Shakespeare’s masterful Lear. One would expect more, though, with all that star power.
King Lear plays at the Public Theater in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village through November 20th.
*The cast includes (alphabetically) CHE AYENDE, CRAIG BOCKHORN, KRISTEN CONNOLLY, MICHAEL CRANE, HERB FOSTER, SETH GILLIAM, ENID GRAHAM, BILL IRWIN, MICHAEL IZQUIERDO, MICHAEL MCKEAN, ARIAN MOAYED, KELLI O’HARA, JOHN DOUGLAS THOMPSON, RICHARD TOPOL, SAM WATERSTON, FRANK WOOD