It’s possible to build a whole production around a single performance, as was clearly the case with King Lear and Glenda Jackson. One is an epic tragedy only twice produced on Broadway in the past 50 years; the other is a stage-and-screen legend whose return to the footlights last year won her a Tony after a three-decade absence (including two as a member of British parliament). She’s already played the role in London. Sam Gold, Tony winner for Fun Home, was tapped to direct a new production for New York, and a venerable cast of theatre vets assembled in supporting roles.
But the befuddling King Lear that opened at the Cort Theatre tonight is, to put it bluntly (and perhaps generously), a hot mess. As I sat in the dark for its three-and-a-half hours (a modest duration, as Lears go), nearly every thought that arose ended in bewilderment. What better way to parse the many questions it inspired than to wander the heath and wrestle them before you? Here’s a sample of what went through my mind on a recent evening at King Lear.
Does it kind of look like we’re on the set of Crazy Rich Asians?
The curtain rises on a gold chamber glinting from floor to Trump-Tower ceiling, a design (by Miriam Buether) that calls to mind the digs of Awkwafina’s character in the blockbuster rom-com (if you’ll recall, its decor is inspired by Versailles and Donald Trump’s bathroom). An unsettling mix of luxe fabrics (velvet, sequins, leather) worn by Lear’s daughters as they plead (or don’t, in Cordelia’s case) for their share of his estate likewise contribute to an atmosphere of nouveau riche vulgarity (costumes are by Ann Roth).
Alright, so is this interpretation of King Lear sort of about Trump?
Short answer… no. The capital letters Shakespeare grapples with in Lear — Power, Greed, Lust, Fortune, Mortality, the list goes on — could be considered salient to pretty much any political situation, and particularly ours right now. But the story, a sprawling one of telenovela proportions, doesn’t map easily onto any other; this is not a case of putting Lear in an orange wig like The Public did Julius Caesar. A sharp point of view might still have illuminated the play’s immortal concerns by injecting them with contemporary resonance. But that’s… not what’s happening here.
What is happening?
Jackson, at 82, is delivering a formidably precise performance. Her Lear is serpent-tongued, ruthless, commanding at 5’6”. Is she so commanding that it’s difficult to truly believe as the king loses his wits and descends into madness? Perhaps. But Ms. Jackson’s iron grip on one of the greatest roles ever written is hardly the problem.
Many among the starry company, which includes Ruth Wilson (doubling, thanklessly and unaumusingly, as Cordelia and the Fool), Pedro Pascal (as villainous Edmund), and Elizabeth Marvel (a high-poneyed Goneril) seem to be in their own productions, for lack of a unifying eye from Gold’s mishandled direction. And though it seems unfair to lay blame at the feet of actors tasked with hefty roles that escape their grasp, two first-time Broadway performers among the principals are shockingly unequipped.
What are the gender swaps accomplishing?
Beyond presenting Ms. Jackson in the role of a lifetime — and granting audiences a reprieve from the abrasive energy of another toxic male character who loves to hear himself speak — it seems not much. Jayne Houdyshell also appears as the Earl of Gloucester, who’s conventionally male, but both women are firmly buttoned into menswear, essentially playing the roles in drag.
A more insightful bit of nontraditional casting is Deaf actor Russell Harvard as the Duke of Cornwall, for whom Michael Arden (who directed Harvard in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening) serves as interpreter. The vigor of Shakespeare rendered in American Sign Language is the closest this production comes to raising the pulse.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar
photos by brigitte lacombe