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The Year of Lear: How a 400-Year-Old Tragedy Became New York's Most Produced Play

Shakespeare's greatest drama, King Lear, takes some of the most prestigious stages in New York, with more than five productions scheduled for 2014.

Michael Pennington as Lear in Theatre for a New Audience's production of King Lear at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
(© Carol Rosegg)

What do you call a collection of King Lears?, wonders the actor Michael Pennington. Is it "A Madness of Lears? A Storm of Lears?" he asks with a chuckle. This is a suitable question in 2014. Between January and December, at least five productions of the greatest tragedy in the English language will have been produced in the five boroughs of New York City, not to mention a fair share on London's West End. "It's peculiar," the U.K.-born Pennington says. "You've got three in the first half of this year [in New York], and it's like that back in England," too.

This occurrence, coincidental more than premeditated, has affectionately been dubbed in New York theater circles as the "Year of Lear." Pennington, who plays the role in Arin Arbus' revival for Theatre for a New Audience, is the second to grace the New York (well, Brooklyn) stage in the title role so far in 2014, following closely behind Frank Langella, who took on the part in early January at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"Know That We Have Divided in Three Our Kingdom"
Pennington, however, proudly proclaims that he was first. At least in theory. "We started talking about it four years ago, but we had to wait for the Polonsky Shakespeare Center [TFANA's new home] to be built. The BAM one was planned much later but they opened earlier than us." Did he see his competitor? "Had it been six months previously, I would have happily gone to see it. But it was too close. I used to observe his audience arriving, but once you start rehearsing, you should clear your mind."

Terry Layman, who is about to play the King for the fledgling Titan Theatre Company in Queens, did see Langella's production, but not Pennington's (it was similarly "too close"). "It's not competitive," Layman notes. "I thought Langella's Lear was a tremendously accomplished, operatic version of that play playing to that house. It was a profoundly resonant Lear for that space. But we're in a 99-seat space out at a Queens theater and it's going to be very intimate."

But just what accounts for the sudden glut of King Lear revivals? Daniel Sullivan, who will direct the play for the Public Theater's 2014 Shakespeare in the Park initiative, attributes it to a resurgence of the classics. "You go through periods where everyone wants to try the Shakespeare that hasn't been done very often, and then there are the periods where it's 'Let's just go back to the great ones,'" Sullivan says. "It's tempting to say that there are a lot of Lears this year because there's something in the culture. Are more people giving up their businesses?" Pennington posits, in a nod to Lear's dividing his kingdom among his daughters.

Frank Langella as Lear at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
(© Johan Persson)

"Sir, I Am Too Old to Learn"
Layman admits to "trying to think if there was something in the zeitgeist," before turning to the idea of the age factor. "I think it's the baby boomers," he says. "The baby-boomer generation is getting old enough to play it now. There are so many of us that it just makes sense."

Age is indeed an important factor. "You can't be too old to play that role," says Sullivan. But, there might be some setbacks for a much older Lear. "You won't remember the lines and you won't be able to carry the body of Cordelia at the end," he admits. At 66, Layman is smack in the middle of this year's performers when grouped by age. Simon Russell Beale, currently playing the character at London's Royal National Theatre, is 53, while John Lithgow, who'll tackle it in Sullivan's production, is 68. Pennington is 70 and Langella is 76. "When it was broached to me, I thought, Why not do it while I can still walk and talk and learn the lines," Layman says. "That's the trade-off with Lear. You want to have the stamina to do it justice, but you also want to be old enough to be convincing."

"Give Me the Map There"
Still, this phenomenon makes Pennington a touch nervous. "If one's candid," Pennington says, "all of those things tend to make one uneasy. But this is something that happens in theater. Thirty-five years ago, I played Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I opened the newspaper and a rival Hamlet, with Jonathan Pryce, had opened at the Royal Court. The truth is that both Pryce's and mine did extremely well. The only worry is that it's going to split the audience, but side by side in Brooklyn, it doesn't seem to work that way."

Layman agrees, but he's got Queens all to himself ("I think the playwright's agent had a perimeter drawn," he says with a laugh). "If I was an audience member," Layman continues, "I think I could go to five productions of Lear and get something different out of every one of them." Pennington feels the same way. "With some of these great plays, there's an interest in comparing," he notes. "You have to metaphorically clasp your rival on the shoulder and wish him luck. Every person's Lear is going to be different."