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Antony Sher is a king without reason in the Royal Shakespeare Company's disjointed production.
Theater review by Helen Shaw
At first, all the auguries seem favorable. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring King Lear has come to the loveliest theater in New York, the BAM Harvey, where last year it mounted Richard II and Henry IV with many of the same strong performers. Directed by RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran, it stars one of our greatest classical actors, Antony Sher. Niki Turner’s set is all steep dark-brick walls and a black dirt floor; the heavy golden discs that embellish Lear’s fur robe—Turner also did the costumes—wink like ancient British treasure freshly dug out of the earth. Doran uses a kind of declamatory, front-facing staging, so actors mainly hurl their speeches directly into the audience. Man, it’s so clear, I remember thinking in the first scene. But things in this incoherent, emotionally vacant production go downhill fast.
The story is as familiar as a fairytale: Lear challenges his daughters Regan (Kelly Williams), Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni) to say how much they love him. Trusty Cordelia freezes, so Lear falls into the hands of the other two, who turn viperish and cruel. There are still more villains, including the ambitious Edmund, played by Paapa Essiedu as a bored court Machiavel who can barely stay focused through his seductions of the two married sisters. On the page, the character’s ripe with enthusiasms—for words, for plots—but not here. Essiedu’s I’m-so-over-it air might be a nice splash of acid in a more energized production. But Doran’s pace plods; Edmund’s weariness seems contagious.
Some yawners in the audience might admittedly be suffering from Lear fatigue, with Derek Jacobi (2011) and Sam Waterston (2011) and John Lithgow (2014) and Michael Pennington (2014) and Frank Langella (2014) all so fresh in our memories. Two of those were in this very same theater! But we go because the play bears repeating, and because a lot of serious actors see it as a crowning achievement: Lear’s the mountain every greybeard wants to climb. But King Lear is a play about humility, which makes it a bad match for victory-lap performances. Shakespeare shows us how quickly we can slip down, and even off, humanity’s ladder. It takes “accommodation,” he says; it takes clothing, kindness, fortune, attendance, luxury and security to stay above the “bare, forked” animals we truly are. If you’re trying to have a triumph as Lear, you’re doing it wrong.
That seems to be what’s happening here. Sher is miscast in the part, and this central instability throws the play’s whole system into disarray. To be sure, he is an extraordinary actor—one of the best in the English-speaking world. He was perfect as Falstaff in the RSC Henriad, giving a performance that seemed fifty percent tabby cat, vibrating with his characteristic trilling purr. But his oiled stylizations don’t work for a character who falls apart. His plummy gurgle sounds ridiculous when issuing orders, and for some reason, this Lear barely seems bothered as he’s going mad. Doran doesn’t help him: Bizarre staging choices mean we see the marquee speeches in awkward tableaux. Sher teeters on top of a giant glass box in the storm scene; he’s wheeled out on a platform with Cordelia draped over him for his final howl. And when he’s on the heath going fully crazy, he wears bright white pajamas and comfy white booties, like a patient at a well-run sanatorium. For an actor trying to play abandonment and “state of nature,” that’s basically sabotage.
The sheer number of half-thought ideas hoisted and quickly abandoned in this production testifies to a lack of confidence at its heart. This is the homework Lear, the Anxiety of Influence Lear, the research Lear. It’s full of borrowed images: The raggedy poor come stumbling in from the Grigori Kozintsev film; the glass box prop recalls Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope paintings. At one point three women, dressed in identical black Martha Graham costumes, speak a messenger’s text in unison. Why? Did Macbeth’s witches get lost? It hardly matters; they won’t be back. Shakespeare hung this difficult play like a garland around one man’s neck, and when the man is wrong, it starts to stinks like an albatross. You can still hear some wonderful language if you go to BAM; some of those words will tunnel through to your heart. But you’ll be doing a lot of the heavy digging yourself.
BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Gregory Doran. With Antony Sher. Running time: 3 hrs 20 mins. One intermission.