The year of Lear


The following piece was submitted by Assistant Professor of English at The King's College, Ethan Campbell. Every year is a good year for Shakespeare in New York City, but 2014 is shaping up to be unusually good for King Lear

In February, legendary actor Frank Langella ended his run as the mad king at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.  A few weeks later, a production by Theatre for a New Audience opened across the street, at the new Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

Later this month, my friend Brad Makarowski plays Lear’s most entertaining character, the Earl of Kent (in one scene, he shouts insults for about 60 lines), for the Titan Theatre Company in Queens.  And Lear is one of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park productions at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, starring John Lithgow.  (The other is Much Ado About Nothing, with American Horror Story star Lily Rabe as Beatrice.)

I don’t know what’s in the water to make so many companies want to stage this most tragic of tragedies.  I’m also not sure it would be emotionally healthy to see all of these productions back to back—that’s a lot of Gloucesters getting their eyes gouged out.  But if you’ve never seen a staged version of Lear, the next few months in the city offer an unparalleled opportunity.

As with any work that English professors proclaim as great, the play might seem impossibly complex when you first encounter it on the page, likely in a classroom, with glosses and footnotes and a daunting mass of critical literature.  And let’s face it, an overexcited teacher can be intimidating, too.  The first time I read Lear, as a college sophomore, the professor literally wept in class.

It’s also a notoriously difficult play to perform well—the famous critic Harold Bloom once said that “our directors and actors are defeated by this play,” and called most productions “staged travesties.”

But like every Shakespeare play, Lear was meant to be performed, and no matter how many times you’ve read it, your understanding will necessarily be impoverished if you haven’t seen its words and actions embodied by professional actors.  It’s one thing to read the words “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” in the final scene, another to see a broken old man shrieking in despair before your eyes.

Two weeks ago, I joined a group of about twenty King’s students at the Theatre for a New Audience production in Brooklyn.  It runs through May 4th and stars Michael Pennington, a veteran stage actor and author of four books on Shakespeare.  One glance at his resume proves Pennington can meet the challenge, and he brings true gravitas to the role.

Director Arin Arbus’s staging of the opening scene helps, too.  The characters who will jockey for power throughout the play—led by the Lear sisters Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia—enter in hierarchical rows to the rattle of military drums.  They are dressed in drab earth tones and already smirking at one another, calculating their relative positions.  Then the drums stop, and the king, robed in purple, strides through the orchestra in complete silence.  The audience feels palpably that Lear rules, though we know he will soon throw everything away to become a “foolish fond old man.”

The most memorable aspect of both productions that have run so far at the Polonsky Center (the first was Broadway director Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) is the space itself.  The stage is an “Elizabethan courtyard” theater-in-the round, which faces the audience on three sides, a space specifically designed for period-accurate productions of Shakespeare and other Renaissance plays.  And with only 299 seats in the house, every vantage point feels tantalizingly close to the action.

One King’s student, Katie Calvert, sat in the second row of the orchestra, where she watched Gloucester’s gruesome maiming and Cornwall’s blood-soaked death from a distance of about five feet.  Fortunately, she survived the trauma.

In all seriousness, though, a group of Kingsians who have studied the play and are deeply serious about art and ideas can provide more insightful commentary afterward than any professional theater critic.  In particular, I was intrigued to hear how the experience of watching the play live changed students’ perspectives on the written text.

First, many noted that the relationship between Edgar and Edmund, played by Jacob Fishel and Chandler Williams, came alive in a way that is difficult to perceive in the text.  Edgar smiles and back-slaps and cracks inside jokes with his brother, who reciprocates for a moment before getting down to devious business.  It’s clear these brothers have been best friends since childhood, a revelation that makes Edmund’s betrayal all the more outrageous and sickening.

On the page, we tend to view Edmund as the brooding psychopath he is internally, then wonder why so many characters are fooled by his obvioius act.  On stage, and presumably as a psychopath in real life would be, he’s attractive and winning and persuasive to everyone he meets, from the virtuous Kent to the vile Cornwall.  Regan and Goneril are willing to kill their husbands and each other for his love—and we believe it.

One scene many found particularly moving was Lear and Gloucester’s reunion, as Lear wanders aimlessly through the plains of Dover after Gloucester’s failed suicide attempt.  It’s difficult to see in print just how funny Lear is in this scene, probably because its context doesn’t naturally incline us to humor.  Lear has lost his throne and Gloucester has lost his eyes, and the former king decides this is the perfect moment to make a few tasteless blind jokes.

The masterful Christopher McCann, as Gloucester, reacts in a surprising way which nevertheless feels perfectly natural—he laughs, but the giggles stick in his throat and soon he is choking back sobs, for himself and for his sovereign.  His reaction parallels the audience’s experience—the jokes feel like comic relief for a moment, but in the end they only make the injustice more unbearable.

This stunning scene alone is worth the $30 student ticket price, as is the Dover battle scene afterward, in which we hear a deafening clash while Gloucester wanders the stage in panic, as if we have entered his blind world.

One casting decision that struck many students as a wrong note was English actress Lilly Englert as Cordelia.  Her performance felt wooden, they said, her lines over-articulated and “stagey.”  I had the same reaction but wasn’t bothered.  Cordelia, after all, is supposed to be socially awkward and cold—her greatest fault, by her own admission, is a “ponderous tongue,” which cannot “heave / My heart into my mouth.”  A well-spoken, emotionally affecting performance wouldn’t make sense, especially in the opening scene.  She embodies a truth Shakespeare expresses throughout the play—that no-nonsense truth-tellers are usually your best friends, even if they don’t make you happy, while amiable flatterers who warm your heart will leave you for dead in the storm.

This production closes soon, but student tickets are still available online.  If you can’t make it before May 4th, you have until mid-August to catch one of the others.  After that, New York’s eternal Shakespeare obsession will no doubt find a new object.