note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Stephen Finn
It has been said that Shakespeare's King Lear should never be produced. The text is full of unremitting gloom, the Bard's only work totally devoid of humor. A cosmic sense of absurdity pervades the work, even a number of characters comment on the stark excess of tragedy that surrounds them. The Victorian's gussied the text up with a happy ending. Peter Brook, in the Sixties, set it in a sub human prehistoric time. Dealing with Lear's madness, Charles Laughton began the first act mad as a hatter and gained sanity as the play progressed. Actors from Sir Donald Wolfit to Lord Olivier have marjoried across the stage as mad kings, and a fair number of performers have behaved more like mad queens.
By some stroke of magic, imagination, courage, and sheer work, Rick Lombardo, the director at the New Repertory Theatre, gets it absolutely right. Sitting in the theatre, one feels this is exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. Austin Pendleton allows, or perhaps forces, the audience to understand the complete plight of a ruler who wishes to relinquish the throne, but who needs, in equal measure, power and love, and, ultimately, looses both. Much has been written about the lack of regal affectation in Pendleton's performance. Doubtless these critics would be happier with either Yul Brynner or Dame Edna as King Lear.
This search for love is not only the keynote in this towering performance, but also a key to finally understanding the maddening first act. Lear wishes to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and retire to spend part of the year with each of them. As a sort of paternal game, he asks each daughter how much love they have for him. Goneril and Regan, the oft-quoted serpents' teeth, spout iambics of their love for the retiring monarch. Cordelia, the nice one, says nothing, only that she offers her father the love that's naturally due him, not more nor less. Considering she knows she's giving up a third of a kingdom by this bad spirited exhibition, it takes a good deal to make this action realistic. If the audience doesn't accept this totally, it can be pretty rough going for the rest of the evening. Pendleton's absolute neediness in love explains it completely. The three daughters have obviously played this game before with their father, but on this all-important day, Cordlia strives for honesty and reality, and is banished for her efforts. Lear is then at the mercy of his two evil daughters, and the descent into madness and hell transpires.
Not only is the acting uniformly of an extraordinary high level, the clarity and diction seem, in this age, almost miraculous. And, best of all, no microphones! Hearing the human voice unamplified in the theatre has become so unique that it now adds an entirely new dimension to the experience.
This is a fairly minimalist production with a unit set, unobtrusive lighting, and serviceable costumes. Particularly effective is the use of the set as a sort of percussive instrument by the entire cast. The sheet of metal that is rattled to create the thunder in the storm is clearly visible, and steel, tin, and wood are thumped, rattled, and drummed on to create an auditory environment rife with battles, doom, and fate.
The supporting cast is completely in tune with the production. The counter plot of Gloucester and his sons is played with style and a real degree of family intimacy. Gloucester is very much the politician in Richard Bowden's moving and dignified performance. As the good son, Edgar, Shawn Sturnick fleshes out what could easily become a sort of put upon Dudley Do-right character with dignity and honest ingenuity. And as Edmund, the bad son, Colin Stokes invests the role of one of Shakespeare's best and most economic villains with a sexiness, charm and verve that is repulsive and fascinating at the same time.
Humanity and the role of Lear seldom align. Usually, and for no textual reason , the role of Lear is played loud, insane, and preoccupied with a theatrical regality that stifles any sense of fatherhood, responsibility, or actual reality in the world of the play. He doesn't banish Cordelia abruptly, but asks her to express great love for him several times. And considering what the poor man goes through, anyone would question his sanity.
With no bombast, Pendleton's Lear examines what is happening and tries to make sense of it as his world crumbles around him. The king's temper is kept in check until the harrowing "Reason not the need" speech, which Pendleton does full out, attempting to strangle his daughter. The action, the king finally pushed to anger, is so abrupt, so wonderful, and so surprising for this Lear that no character tries to stop him, they all stand back, amazed. The arc of this performance is so beautifully transparent that all of the horror and pathos of the piece is manifest. If true tragedy is about pity and terror, this is truly a production not to be missed.
I must add, at the end, my all time favorite bad review of King Lear. It was John Mason Brown, I believe, who once penned, "He played the King as if someone had led the ace." Obviously, Rick Lombardo, Austin Pendleton, and the entire company, have all the aces..