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Theatre in Review: King Lear (Royal Shakespeare Company/Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Antony Sher, Graham Turner. Photo: Richard Termine

The moment when Gregory Doran's production becomes a Lear for the ages comes in Act I, Scene III, when the title character realizes that he has nurtured what the Duke of Albany calls "tigers, not daughters." (And Albany ought to know, being married to Goneril, one of the two sisters who, having been given a kingdom by their father, have moved, swiftly and remorselessly, to subdue him, leaving him mortally humiliated and virtually homeless unless he agrees to their insupportable demands.) Up to this point, Antony Sher has been a notably choleric Lear, prone to rages and certainly not above hurling objects at impertinent courtiers or throwing over a table or two when crossed. Only a minute earlier, he has grabbed Goneril in a death grip -- foolishly, and perhaps tellingly, she clings to him, whether in affection or panic I cannot say -- and pronounced her "a disease that's in my flesh/Which I must needs call mine," adding, "Thou art a boil/A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle/In my corrupted blood." Clearly, if the self-deposed monarch is going down, he intends to take his tormentors with him.

Swaying back and forth, as if his body cannot contain the rage bubbling up from a dark place deep inside, he pronounces his ungrateful progeny "unnatural hags," adding, "I will have such revenges on you both/That all the world shall-" There is a break in the text, followed by "I shall do such things/What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be/The terrors of the earth." In the space between that first, incomplete sentence and the words that follow, he pauses, still shifting from right to left; the silence extends itself, uncomfortably. A look of confusion creeps in, with an undertone of fear. When he again speaks, the effect is halting; by the time the speech is completed, he is a broken man, his fury expelled, his sense of purpose lost. (Never have the words "terrors of the earth" seemed like such a hollow threat.) In less than a minute, he is unmanned. It is one of the most remarkable acting feats I have seen in years.

From here it is a very short road to the madman cowering in a storm, wearing a crown made of leaves, attended to by a miniature court of the dispossessed. Doran shines a light on every nook and cranny of this famously knotty text, giving it a sharp progression from order to chaos and death, and highlighting its parallel structure, founded on two deceived patriarchs. In the wrong hands, Lear -- one of Shakespeare's mightiest works -- can seem lumbering, a lingering trip through a chamber of horrors; here it comes across as a model of construction, a step-by-step descent into hell. It begins on an almost laughable note of pomp: The king enters encased in a glass box, dressed in a barbaric fur coat, decked out with heavy gold medallions. (Niki Turner's costumes, most of them extremely flattering, suggest a kind of parallel medieval universe with the odd modern touch.) At first glance, in that outrageous coat Lear looks like a Yeti, but his manner is as beatific as any pope gazing down on the assembled faithful. His early line readings suggest he has been cossetted for so long that he has lost sight of his mortality. The loss of his assurance, and its replacement by a killing despair, provides the evening's dramatic spine. Layer upon layer of his clothing will be stripped away, along with the privilege they represent.

Under Doran's direction, virtually every performance casts a light on this awful procession of human folly. Nia Gwynne's Goneril reveals her calculating nature early on: Professing her daughterly adoration, she pauses, taking a quick look to see what sort of effect she is producing. Kelly Williams' Regan is even icier, no more so than when standing by, coolly looking on when her suddenly inconvenient husband, mortally wounded, asks for her arm; she then steps back into the shadows, leaving him to his fate. Antony Byrne is a fine Earl of Kent, who dares to talk back to Lear, is banished for his fidelity, and returns in disguise, watching over him in his decline. David Troughton, as the Earl of Gloucester, sends a chill through the room when he announces, "We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our graves." This is one of many lines that seem to comment on the current political situation; no highlighting is required for the words to resonate. When, later at the performance I attended, Gloucester said, "'Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind," a palpable murmur spread around the room.

As Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, Paapa Essiedu is a schemer as magnetic as he is sociopathic, especially when pulling his half-brother, Edgar, into an embrace that is really the beginning of a betrayal. (When Kent, intrigued by Edmund's eerie self-possession, says, "I must love you, and sue to know you better," Edmund's response -- "Sir, I shall study deserving" -- reverberates with multiple levels of insolence and insinuation.) Edgar is a difficult role; his decision to escape persecution by impersonating an unclad madman is extremely hard to justify; still, Oliver Johnstone makes something legitimately heartbreaking of the passages in which Edgar, still in disguise, comes across his victimized father and tries to assist him without giving away his identity.

Graham Turner's Fool is an especially original creation. Decked out in a kind of pre-modern union suit, sporting an aviator's cape dotted with red pom-poms (his "coxcomb"), he is less a joker than an urgent truth-teller, a warning hidden inside each of his jests. The sight of him and Lear seated side by side on a pile of luggage is a lasting image of dispossession that seems to link Shakespeare's play to the world of Waiting for Godot and Endgame. In one of Doran's most inventive touches, Lear takes refuge in a kind of flophouse that is filled with beggars who shrink from him. As soon as Lear departs, they turn on the Fool, beating and robbing him.

Turner's set, defined by weathered brown brick walls, fits seamlessly inside the elegantly ruined interior of the Harvey Theatre; during the storm scene, the upstage wall parts to reveal a curtain of video rain, while cracks in the stage floor are illuminated, suggesting that Lear's world is coming apart. Tim Mitchell's superb lighting makes use of strong back- and sidelight systems to create highly muscular looks. The action begins in golden sunlight, progresses to a storm-swept night, and concludes in the cold light of day. Jonathan Ruddick's sound design includes barking dogs, thunder, and soldiers in battle, as well as an unsettling hum before the play begins.

There are occasional touches that grate. I wish that Mimi Ndiweni's Cordelia spoke more clearly, especially in her later encounter with Lear. One of the play's key events -- the blinding of Gloucester -- is staged inside another glass box, this one outlined in white LED tape, a disconcertingly contemporary touch, as if we had been suddenly whisked away to a rendition center operated by the CIA. (The actual blinding is as grisly as anyone could want.)

But there are many more moments that contribute to an overwhelmingly powerful whole: Gloucester, leading Lear, the Fool, and Edmund (in disguise) in a human chain out of a terrifying storm; Lear, wandering the heath while upstage, and Gloucester, blinded and bloodied and staggering around, each oblivious to the other; a battle depicted through shadow play behind the upstage cyc. Most of all, there is Sher's Lear, howling over the body of the dead Cordelia, gently rocking her corpse, trying to rouse some semblance of life from her corpse. He offers an especially tender reading of the final speech, completing the character's journey from the apex of power to a state of nothingness. Nothing so becomes this Lear in his life as his leaving it. At this production, pity and terror are guaranteed. -- David Barbour

(13 April 2018)

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