By Samuel L. Leiter
The Playbill calls this hoary classic William Shakespeare’s King Lear, as if we needed to be reminded who wrote it. And, perhaps we do, since this latest entry in the modern dress-revival sweepstakes could just as well be called Sam Gold’s King Lear, in honor of Gold’s gimmick-burdened production.
The smartest gimmick any director can create when reviving Shakespeare is (regardless of the period chosen) to stage it (heaven forfend!) so that it actually creates the illusion of real people in recognizable—even if symbolically so—surroundings. Instead, as here, we get distracting casting, knives and pistols for swords, camo gear and rifles for military scenes, sets that are neither interiors or exteriors and tell us nothing of where the action is taking place, and a full panoply of decisions that, while often clever, are more likely to shine a light on the director than the play.
As the song says, “Kid, you gotta get a gimmick if you want to get ahead.” Productions like this one are like a stripper making her tassels twirl in opposite directions.
Gold’s King Lear, of course, is built around the great Glenda Jackson as the monarch. I’ve loved Jackson since I saw her on Broadway in 1965 as Charlotte Corday in Peter Brook’s magnificent staging of Marat/Sade, and fully supported her recent Tony win in Three Tall Women. But, let’s be honest. Regardless of the fact that other women have played Lear, and that Jackson is surprisingly sturdy for an 82-year-old (many fine male actors of that age haven’t got her stamina), she’s still a frail-looking presence who, regardless of how incisively she speaks Lear’s words, has nothing in the least bit manly about her, and can do little to create even a soupçon of illusion.
She’s “King” Lear here, not “Queen” Lear, with no concession to her gender. (Ditto Jane Houdyshell’s Gloucester). At the end, when Lear traditionally carries the dead Cordelia (Ruth Wilson) in his arms (provided she’s not too large), this production skips the business. Wilson, in fact, slender as she is, looks more capable of carrying Lear than vice-versa.
And, for all the microscopically precise intonations and readings Jackson gives the lines, accompanied by enough rolling r’s to build a railroad, her Lear is, from the start, a sneeringly dyspeptic leader, with a streak of sarcasm but little of the royal magnanimity that would make a rough hewn, loyal servant like Kent (John Douglas Thompson) follow him so slavishly. Only late in the play, when Lear goes mad and appears in rags with a crown of wildflowers, does the softened, chastised character begin to affect us. Unfortunately, Lear now seems more an octogenarian Ophelia than an antiquated Lear.
Miriam Buether’s set is a sleek, box-like, gold-plated, three-walled, meeting room with long tables and a reflective ceiling with recessed lighting that serves for both indoor and outdoor scenes. It makes little sense (a bare, wooden stage would have been better) but Jane Cox’s multi-colored lighting does all it can to invest it with variety. Supplementing it is a gold curtain for the storm scene; when it rises, it discloses the same room, now looking like a hurricane swept through and turned its tables, chairs, and accessories into a consumerist junkpile.
No matter where the action is set—those who don’t know the plot will surely be confused—a quartet of formally dressed musicians (two violins, a viola, and a cellist) take up changeable positions to play original music by Philip Glass. Meanwhile, Gold is busy piling up directorial jeux, some reminding us of what sexual fools these mortals are.
For example, we get to see the naked legs of Lear’s wicked daughter, Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) spring up among the detritus as Gloucester’s evil son, Edmund (Sean Carvajal), vigorously plows her, after which she puts on her panties, reaches into them to retrieve a taste of honey, and places her anointed finger on Edmund’s lusty lips. Nor is the other wicked sister, Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan), a slutty slouch, as witness her grabbing Edmund’s hand and placing it inside her pants for quickie gratification.
This is a three-and-a-half-hour production in which the Duke of Cornwall (Russell Harvard) is a deaf man in kilts, his lines (except for a few imprecations) both voiced and signed by an aide (Michael Arden); one in which Edmund’s maligned brother, Edgar (Pedro Pascal), breaks into Spanish during one of his Poor Tom scenes; and one in which Cordelia need not be carried on because it’s apparently easier to open flaps in the ceiling so her slim, black-garbed corpse, with a rope around her neck, can be flown in for Lear to embrace once she’s safely on the ground.
These and other intrusions make it difficult to appraise performances that must compete, often by overacting, with so much “creative” excess. In general, the acting is solid and clearly-spoken. Wilson’s Cordelia is no wispy sentimentalist; her reluctance to cater to Lear’s inquiry about which daughter loves him best reveals a chip on her shoulder that makes you wonder why he’d even bother asking. She doubles as the Fool, and gives him a superior interpretation, making him a memorably Chaplinesque Cockney in a performance both feeling and funny.
At the end, as the deaths and gimmicks pile up around King Lear, it’s impossible not to view the proceedings as a showcase for anything but the play. It’s a parody, in fact, of what happens when a Shakespeare director pulls all the stops out, till they call the cops out.
William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Through July 7 at the Cort Theatre (138 W. 48th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). Three and a half hours, one intermission. www.kinglearonbroadway.com
Photos: Brigitte Lacombe