Hal Holbrook adds another impressive credit to his resume with his strong rendition of the title role in Jack O’Brien’s dark, spare and stirringnew version of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
The great challenge of Lear, the aging and hypervain king struggling with problems of mortality and family, comes in credibly conveying the emotional downfall of a man of great strength and power into a weak, pitiable figure whose dementia paradoxically brings him greater insight into himself and the world.
Holbrook relies on considerable physicality, letting it diminish as the king’s force ebbs. Early on, his Lear roars around the stage, abounding with gestures like imploring arms and breast-beating.
Following the storm that climaxes the first act and cracks Lear’s mind, Holbrook returns, as the lion-turned-housecat, dancing a jig and wryly philosophizing, in the style of the jester who accompanied him through his trauma.
Except for some moments when his ranting costs elocution, it’s a stellar rendition. Holbrook, of course, is the marquee name in this show, but he’s not the only compelling figure on stage. O’Brien has loaded the cast with Old Globe regulars noted for their consistently strong showings. For the key role of Gloucester, he’s turned to Richard Easton.
The redoubtable Easton offers a full-bodied, heart-rending Gloucester, and the scenes featuring Holbrook and Easton rank among this exceptional production’s finest.
Other Globe familiars recording strong imprints are Katherine McGrath and Kandis Chappell as Lear’s malicious daughters, Goneril and Regan, and William Anton as the banished Earl of Kent.
Jonathan Walker, as the duplicitous Edmund, illegitimate son of Gloucester, displays an easy charm that makes the man’s evil influence believable. And Robert Sean Leonard, as the tormented but loyal son Edgar, uses his earnestness to better effect than he does in the current film “Much Ado About Nothing.”
O’Brien’s directorial vision shows in such ingenious touches as giving the role of the Fool to a woman (Patricia Conolly). That makes the tempest scene, with Lear carrying the Fool, presage the final awful moments when the king bears his dead daughter Cordelia. There’s lots of gore, in such expected circumstances as the blinding of Gloucester, and in instances like a crowd scene built around the disemboweling of a boar.
David F. Segal’s lighting upholds O’Brien’s darkness-growing-brighter concept superbly. The lightning storm, enlivened with Jeff Ladman’s sound, is almost too dramatic, obscuring Lear’s words.
Ladman’s sound also adds dramatic undercurrents, and Larry Delinger has contributed some original music. Robert Morgan’s showy costumes progress through several centuries, indicating the timelessness of the play’s themes.
Ralph Funicello’s set is a rocky slope, flanked with stone columns and backed by a huge wall that looks like swirled plaster. Its whiteness usually registers as stark, but under Segal’s varied lighting it provides amazingly versatile backgrounds.
About the only disconcerting note in this production comes from the set. The revolving stage’s most prominent feature is a giant egg-shaped boulder, and as it circles around, it too often resembles a baked potato on a microwave turntable.