If really smart people can’t agree about King Lear, where does that leave the rest of us – directors and actors, not to mention the harried critic? The Tragedy of King Lear is Shakespeare’s Everest. Some must scale it because it represents the dramatic summit, as Harold Bloom wrote, “the height of literary experience.” Others take a whack simply, as the old Everest joke goes, because it’s there.
Leo Tolstoy derided it in his Mad magazine-worthy, scene-by-scene smackdown, concluding, “However absurd it may appear in my rendering (which I have endeavored to make as impartial as possible), I may confidently say that in the original it is yet more absurd … it is a very bad, carelessly composed production, which … cannot evoke among us anything but aversion and weariness.” Even Shakespeare’s incomparable modern-age defender Jan Kott conceded, of the title character, “Regarded as a person, a character, Lear is ridiculous, naïve and stupid.”
Adding to the challenge, Bloom touted Lear as literature, suggesting that it’s unproduceable as theater. “I have attended many stagings of King Lear and invariably have regretted being there.” And yet, to misquote the Bard, as flies to wanton boys is Lear to the theater’s mortal gods. I’ve dozed through many a revival of King Lear and, admittedly far less often, been lifted to a state of emotional wreckage that was equal parts exhilaration and humility.
It is to that latter category I assign the new Broadway production, which opened April 4 at the Cort Theatre. It stars Glenda Jackson in the title role and has been staged by Sam Gold. Neither is what anyone would call a conventional choice. Perhaps no director other than Ivo van Hove divides critics and audiences alike the way Gold does, especially in their treatment (or mistreatment) of classic texts. And Jackson, who took a nearly quarter-century hiatus to serve as a Labor MP in the House of Commons, well she is a woman. Indeed she won a Tony Award last year as the central character in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women.
To those looking for a traditional Lear, then, I say, tough noogies. Together, Gold and Jackson have fashioned something rare: a gut-wrenching show that plays comparatively straight with that insanely daunting, logic-challenging text while taking risks that inevitably will offend purists. In 2016, Jackson led an acclaimed U.K revival of Lear. It’s astonishing that, at 82, she has come to Broadway in an entirely different production.
Gold sets the play in a vaguely Edwardian milieu (though later there will be army fatigues and machine guns, etc.). Ann Roth’s exquisite clothes for the scenes at court are formal, as is the sparingly but lushly appointed setting by Miriam Buether, a music room suggestive of Trumpian overindulgence in gilt. (Post-intermission, it will be trashed to represent the play’s different locales, notably the storm-battered heath, battlefields and hovels, lit with pinpoint specificity by Jane Cox.)
When the burnished gold metallic curtain rises, we are in that music room for an exclusive gathering. We are challenged from the first instant. We know this is a music room because there is actual music being played by a string quartet, for which Philip Glass has composed a classically inspired score of great beauty.
They will play with us for much of the show’s three-and-a-half hour duration, accentuating Lear’s decline without ever imposing on the king’s progression from needy Daddy demanding fealty from his three daughters to ruined royal howling over the death of the only of them who truly loved him.
We open on Gloucester (played by Tony-winner Jane Houdyshell) nattering shamelessly about his sons, the illegitimate Edmund (Pedro Pascal) and his preferred heir, Edgar (Sean Carvajal). Seated upstage are the daughters, the deceptive and horny Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel, in a career high performance), the in-over-her-head Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan) and the beloved Cordelia (Ruth Wilson, of The Affair). Enter Lear, who has a map of his kingdom set on the floor for all to see. He has divided it into thirds as dowries for the women in order that he, now in his 80s, might “unburdened, crawl toward death.” First, however, he wants to know, Lear tells the assembly, which of his girls loves him the most.
Goneril and Regan lay it all on thick, pleasing their father. Cordelia refuses to play along. (“Why have my sisters husbands, if they say they love you all?”) Lear is stunned out of his dottiness to rebuke Cordelia and disown her, setting in motion all that will follow as Goneril and Regan, with their obliging husbands, plot to usurp the throne.
With her hair cropped to a flattened, almost Hitlerian wave, her voice an unmodulated rasp, and her face a mask of curdled disdain, Jackson is from the outset a Mr. Grumpypants, severe to the point of nastiness. As Cordelia will not pander to her father, Jackson’s monarch will not pander to us merely to engage our sympathy – at least not once through the two hours before the intermission.
Only in exile, accompanied by the Fool (also played by Wilson, in a brilliant double performance that is as taut and quick as her Cordelia is quietly self-assured and unrepentant) are more human feelings aroused for Lear. The scene in the wild in which Gloucester, now brutally blinded, encounters Lear, now seemingly lost to madness, remains one of the most heartbreaking in all literature. “I know thee well enough,” Lear says, “thy name is Gloucester.” For all of Shakespeare’s infuriating use of disbelief, in which people seem unable to identify those they have known intimately, this line in these times conveys a stunning truth, a moment of clarity that cuts through the fog of dementia.
It is in these later passages that Jackson’s king – now in pajamas and a crown of wild flowers, roaming the hills with Kent (the magnificent John Douglas Thompson), the disguised Edgar (Carvajal is most touching as Poor Tom) and Gloucester – shades from unlikable to profoundly, movingly heroic. There is not a moment in the performance in which Jackson is anything less than commanding. She rolls her "R"s for dramatic effect and flits the fingers on her outsize hands. Her voice alone is a miracle of power and conveyance. At 75, frail Laurence Olivier may have needed wires to help lift the dead Ophelia for a TV production of the play. One doesn’t imagine the diminutive Jackson needing any such assistance.
We wouldn’t know, however, because Gold stages the scene in a shocking way that I won’t reveal but that doesn’t require corpse-carrying. Gold tests “tradition” in other ways as well. Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall, is played by the deaf actor Russell Harvard, assisted by Michael Arden, founder of L.A.’s Deaf West company, who signs the speeches addressed to the Duke. The company is uneven, and some of the performances lack conviction and specificity, though the key roles are keenly played.
I’ll share one more revelation, one I didn’t expect. I sat in the center section of the third row of the balcony at the Cort. It’s often said that even with the exorbitant cost of Broadway tickets, most people won’t go for the nosebleeds. But my $49 ticket offered an unobstructed view and perfect acoustics. Moreover, the balcony was packed (many of the other seats could be had for $35) with students, families, a whole range of people. Not once did I hear a mobile phone go off, see a screen light up, or hear a candy-wrapper rustle. No one left at intermission. We were there for the show, and we were well rewarded.