Review: King Lear
Sam Waterston rages in the storm of Shakespeare's grand tragedy.
Wed Nov 9 2011
Photograph: Joan Marcus
King Lear at Public Theater
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
In 1681, poet Nahum Tate brought out his bowdlerized King Lear, which substituted Shakespeare's harrowing ending for one in which Lear survives, Cordelia marries Edgar, and everyone lives happily ever after. Samuel Johnson approved this fairy-tale mutilation, and it served as the standard version for about 150 years. I mention this footnote because, after seeing my third blandly faithful Lear this year, I'd be willing to give Tate's travesty a whirl. At this point, I'll take defacement over embalming.
Not that the Public's new version, starring the admirable Sam Waterston in an unevenly acted production staged by James Macdonald, doesn't have elements to recommend it. Frank Wood is a fishy, vicious Cornwall; Michael McKean endows Gloucester with stiff but honest dignity; and Kelli O'Hara is ice-cold as the sadistic Regan. When these actors clash in the infamous eyeball-plucking scene, it's effectively gruesome. That bit comes right before intermission, signaled by a one-count blackout as Wood, hand soaked in his own blood, reaches out vainly to the stone-faced O'Hara. The sudden lights-out is quietly shocking. When Macdonald and his designers underscore how brutal and bleak this world is, the production's pulse quickens. (And, as a virile and explosive Kent, John Douglas Thompson steals whole swaths of the show.)
But of course, the main attraction and reason this Lear exists (just four years after the Public produced it with Kevin Kline) is Waterston. While not monumental in this taxing, iconic role, the beloved actor is passionate and touching, and he works his way through the poetry with humane intelligence. And Waterston's reedy tremolo, so familiar from years on Law & Order, wrings the tears out of you in Lear's sublime curses, laments and his heartrending reunion with Cordelia. Like me, you might need a break from the overdone tragedy, but there are worse ways to retire than this.