Shakespeare's "King Lear," so grand in its scope, so dark in its vision, is not a play about a single man. But the new Broadway production tends to make you forget this. Playing the maddened and maddening title character, Christopher Plummer gives a performance of purity and truth that it lays entire claim to our hearts and minds.
Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” so grand in its scope, so dark in its vision, is not a play about a single man. But the new Broadway production tends to make you forget this. Playing the maddened and maddening title character, Christopher Plummer gives a performance of such purity and truth that it lays instant and entire claim to our hearts and minds; there’s not much compassion left for anyone else, so powerful is our engagement in Lear’s physical and intellectual dissolution amid the harrowing storms of life.
This is not to suggest Plummer’s Lear is a self-aggrandizing star turn. On the contrary, Plummer and director Jonathan Miller have taken care to emphasize the ordinary nature of Lear’s fears, flaws and foibles, and particularly the physical infirmities he shares with many another old man — frailties that have nothing to do with the disorienting loss of his regal prerogatives.
Lear enters with an arm on the shoulder of his Fool for support, his hair an unkempt squall of white fuzz. He has trouble remembering the name of one of Cordelia’s suitors; at times his hands shake uncontrollably. Here Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom seems eminently natural: Clearly, the man is well past retirement age. And his susceptibility to his elder daughters’ flattery and his childish rage at Cordelia’s reticence are the natural weaknesses of a sentimental codger. Plummer’s Lear has passed into a kind of emotional incontinence, a selfishness that expresses itself in tantrums of petty rage.
Accordingly, the protestations of his daughters Goneril (Domini Blythe) and Regan (Lucy Peacock) at the king’s large retinue do not seem the entirely malicious insults they often do. In Miller’s staging, a good dozen of the king’s men line the stage, almost menacingly surrounding Goneril as she complains of his unruly men. Miller’s “Lear” does, in fact, put unusual emphasis on the domestic aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy: It becomes a play about the distortions of love and hate that take place in the hot crucible of intimate family life, the peculiar manner in which that most “natural” of loves, between parents and children, can turn into most unnatural hate.
This is a conscious choice. In interviews Miller has heaped scorn on the notion of “Lear” as a “cosmic” play: “People get deluded into the cosmic quality of the play simply because there’s a thunderstorm in it.” There is certainly nothing cosmic, epic or theatrically bold about Miller’s staging. It might even be called willfully ordinary: Instead of a set, the wooden thrust stage of the Festival Theater at Canada’s Stratford Festival, where this production was originally staged in 2002, has been meticulously re-created in the Vivian Beaumont — a curious enterprise. (Maybe a lazy one, too.)
This eminently functional space is left bare throughout the evening, save for the minimum furniture necessary. The costumes by Clare Mitchell are standard-issue Elizabethan garb. Miller even seems to downgrade that storm a bit: It’s little more than a few flickers of light and a thunderclap or two.
Among the few liberties taken with staging, the most notable is the decision to have Lear, in the play’s last minutes, enter dragging the lifeless body of Cordelia behind him, not cradling it in his arms. Miller seems to be intent on debunking not just the “cosmic” but also the sentimental notions that cling like barnacles to the play: Wouldn’t it be unrealistic to expect an aged man who has spent days wandering the wild to have the strength to heave a grown woman into his arms?
Well, maybe so. And maybe it’s also true that Cordelia’s refusal to proclaim her love for her father in the play’s opening moments is a bit of willful persnicketiness, as it is played here by Claire Jullien, and not an example of a pure love unable to express itself in words soiled by others’ hypocrisy. But these decisions have a flattening effect on the play’s emotional fabric. Miller is so intent on working against pieties or simplicities that he threatens to mute the play’s force as an exploration of the opposing powers of darkness and light, of love and hate, of compassion and cruelty.
The depth of Cordelia’s love for her father simply fails to register in that crucial opening scene, mitigating, to a degree, the poignancy of their reunion, or the agony of its sequel. And Miller’s refusal to represent Goneril and Regan as gorgons of evil provides disorienting moments of levity in the unremitting darkness of the play’s final acts — Peacock’s Regan, a woman who, after all, is so bloodthirsty as to exult in the blinding of Gloucester, is mostly a snippy provider of comic relief. (Even her wig is funny.)
But Miller’s meticulously rational approach does bring a crucial dividend. His handling of the relationship between Lear and his Fool, touchingly played by Barry MacGregor, is revelatory. This Fool is not a capering entertainer spouting incomprehensible jokes but a clear-eyed commentator on the king’s mistakes. Miller’s subtle but sharp focus on this relationship makes us aware that the Fool is really the only character in the play (aside from Kent) to see things clearly from start to finish — and it also underscores the idea that the play is, on a deep level, about the crucial importance of this faculty. (Lear’s last words: “Look there! Look there!”)
Lear sees Cordelia’s reticence as indifference, Goneril and Regan’s purring words as love; the duped Gloucester (the fine James Blendick) sees love where there is hate, hate where there is love. Many of the major characters must undergo transforming experiences to fight their way through to true vision. Edgar must disguise himself as a madman (Brent Carver is more impressive as the mad Tom than as the ill-used son). Gloucester, in the grimmest of the play’s dark ironies, must lose his sight to truly see — “I stumbled when I saw,” as he says.
And it is only through his own foolishness, his folly — and subsequently through madness itself — that Lear learns to see himself and the world clearly, with the lighthearted but clear-sighted affection that the Fool always possessed. (Surely it is not coincidence that the Fool disappears from the play when Lear’s sanity is restored and he is reunited with Cordelia. He is no longer needed to lead the way forward; Lear has learned his lesson, has become the Fool.)
The waystations on this journey are illuminated with unforgettable power by Plummer. He is immersed in his character’s being — which is to say his suffering — from the play’s opening moments to its last, painstakingly illuminating the progress of a king discovering what it means to be a man. Even Shakespeare’s most challenging language pours forth as a natural expression of Lear’s extreme emotional states, not discrete actorly showpieces. The moments of clarity have aching poignancy, the descents into dementia a piteous authenticity.
Shakespeare’s grim, great play tests the limits of our tolerance for cruelty, the depths of our capacity for compassion. We are dared, like Lear and through him, to “feel what wretches feel” and “show the heavens more just.” On this occasion, thanks to the humble magnificence of Plummer’s performance, few in the audience are likely to fail its challenges.