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Christopher Plummer in King Lear
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The ghost of William Shakespeare must be smiling over New York City these days, as this is a year of unusually satisfying productions of the Bard's plays. Although last summer's Henry V in Central Park was a thing of intermittent pleasures, Liev Schreiber in the title role further established himself as one of America's leading Shakespearean actors. Another prominent stateside Shakespearean, Kevin Kline, was one of the reasons why Jack O'Brien's Henry IV for Lincoln Center Theater was spectacularly powerful. Only recently, Bartlett Sher -- who's been doing impressive work on behalf of Theatre for a New Audience -- made something joyful of Pericles.

And now, also at Lincoln Center, comes Jonathan Miller's King Lear, with Christopher Plummer and many other company members of the acclaimed 2002 Stratford Festival of Canada production repeating their roles. It's commendable that the LCT powers decided to import Miller's handiwork because his is an entirely accessible examination of what many consider to be Shakespeare's best play -- or, if not, a close second to Hamlet.

Dr. Miller, who published his Human Body in 1978, has approached the challenging text with a clinical head. As Lear on the heath wants to "anatomize Regan, see what breeds in her heart," Miller has taken a textbook look at what makes King Lear tick. I have never seen quite so lucid a production of this Shakespeare play; at no moment during the performance did I not know precisely what was on the characters' minds as they darted compulsively across ancient England. All of this takes place on a multi-level wooden set by Ralph Funicello that is almost completely unsullied by furniture. (The set has been recreated on the sprawling stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater in what seems to be an inch-by-inch replication of the Stratford stage.)

As commentators have observed when trying to pin down Lear's ineluctable pull, the play is about everything and nothing -- the latter in an explicit sense, as the word "nothing" appears repeatedly in the script. "Nothing will come of nothing," Lear says to Cordelia when she refuses to praise him insincerely as her sisters Goneril and Regan have done in their bid to win a goodly portion of the kingdom that's being divvied. But more than anything, King Lear is about Lear's personal everything and nothing. It's about a man who has everything material but who, having reached his 80s, is so unwise that he may be said to have nothing in the final analysis. (A case could be made that, until Shakespeare's later romances, all of his monarchs are fools who only arrive at self-realization when it's too late.)

Therefore, what no production of King Lear can do without is a surpassing Lear. No worries here from the charged moment when Christopher Plummer enters, looking ravaged yet imperial in his gorgeous 17th-century robes (costumes by Clare Mitchell) and with his white hair and beard flowing. His mouth is making chewing movements, as is often the case with octogenarians who have problem teeth. Although he instantly suggests infirmity, Plummer quickly rises to a tyrant's anger that flares and abates throughout his performance. (Look for him and Kevin Kline to battle for this year's Tony.)

Plummer's Lear does not go gently into that foul night, and the character has stunning language in which to rail at his plight and eventually accept it. He's the fool that his wise Fool (here played by Barry MacGregor) isn't. One of Miller's accomplishments -- in tandem with Plummer -- is that, for the first time in my experience, the Fool's disappearance after Act III makes sense. The character represents the sagacity that the aging Lear lacks; when the monarch acquires it by integrating the Fool's outlook, the real Fool is no longer needed. (How prescient it was of Shakespeare to have implied this Freudian psychological verity.)

Talking about his Lear interpretation, Miller has said that he's intrigued by the idea of homelessness. Lear, for those who might not know, sacrifices his holdings when he loses the dangerous game he introduces by asking his daughters to state their love for him. Banishing Cordelia (Claire Jullien) for her refusal to wax prettily, he gives the plummy-mouthed Goneril (Domini Blythe) and Regan (Lucy Peacock) control over him; they exploit the position so cruelly that Lear is eventually reduced to damning them as he cowers on a literal and figurative barren heath. He finds himself there with his old friend, the now-blind Gloucester, another grumpy old man who couldn't distinguish his good son, Edgar (Brent Carver), from his bad son, the Iago-alike Edmund (Geraint Wyn Davies). It's a wonder that on this Beckettian plain, Lear and Gloucester don't bump into Vladimir and Estragon -- maybe because they are Vladimir and Estragon.

Domini Blythe, Lucy Peacock, and Christopher Plummer in King Lear
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Yes, this Lear is about homelessness: You can't go home if you can't find a home within yourself. And it's about family -- obtuse parents and problem children. (For the best dysfunctional-family version of the play, Richard Eyre's 1997 production at London's Royal National still takes the crown and scepter.) Perhaps more than anything, it concerns acquiring insight about others, even if only moments before one dies and/or is ironically blinded. In Lear there may be only three characters who have innate understanding -- the Fool, Kent (Benedict Campbell), and Cordelia's suitor, the king of France (Paul O'Brien). The brilliantly conniving Edmund thinks he has it but is proved wrong; the others, Cordelia included, only come to it slowly or never.

Mention of Cordelia's impaired acumen brings up one of Miller's few missteps. When Lear asks his daughters how they love him, Shakespeare allots Cordelia two asides, one each after the politicking Goneril and Regan have spoken their pieces. ("What shall Cordelia do?" she asks herself after Goneril effuses -- "Love, and be silent.") Miller, who's trimmed what feels like a fair amount from the play, cuts these asides. This has the effect of making Cordelia seem something of a prig when she tells her father that she won't flatter him and thereby sets the tragic events in motion; "Ease up, girl," you want to say. The director has allowed sound designer Scott Anderson to go so hog-wild with the storm on the heath that Lear's "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks" speech is unforgivably overwhelmed. (Robert Thompson's lighting, which suggests snow mixed with rain on that blasted heath, is fine.) And Miller has also blundered in allowing Brent Carver to speak Edgar's lines as if he were chewing porridge.

The other members of the cast speak much more trippingly on the tongue. Davies's suave and smiling Edmund in a welcome variation on more obvious, hand-rubbing Edmunds. Blythe and Peacock are sleek as Goneril and Regan, and it's amusing to watch them vie for Edmund's attentions. Barry MacGregor is a meticulously cocky Fool; the part couldn't be played any better. As Goneril's arrogant steward Oswald, Brian Tree is just about perfect, and James Blendick is an efficient Gloucester.

Because Miller has gone at the passion of King Lear with a streak of the physician's dispassion, his production might be viewed by some critics and theatergoers as bloodless. (Literally: When Edmund cuts his hand and blames the attack on his brother, he draws no blood.) Nevertheless, it's ideal in its way. A word to the wise: See it.

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