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King Lear

It's Lithgow's Lear, But It's Edgar's Play

The Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park, Delacorte Theater, New York, N.Y.
Friday, August 1, 2014, G/M–203 & 204 (right)
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Edgar in only a loin cloth around his waist and hand up, kneels with Lear, in simple burlap-like rope, one hand on the groound,the other around Edgar's shoulder
Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji) "philosophizes" with King Lear (John Lithgow) in the Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park production of William Shakespeare's King Lear. Below, Edmund (Eric Sheffer Stevens) and Goneril (Annette Bening) spark a romance. Photos by Joan Marcus, Public Theater.

Even his movements are poetical. His every gesture and his sublime expressions turn gibberish into soul-temblor art. The way he sings a lullaby puts emotions in motion, and when he stares vacantly at the dead body of one he loved so dearly, it makes you swallow hard.

In a Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park production of William Shakespeare's King Lear, featuring John Lithgow in the title role and Annette Bening as Goneril, it is Chukwudi Iwuji's Edgar who lifts this production to the heights of majesty. Without a doubt, Lithgow as Lear was our most anticipated theater outing of the year: more so than Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth, Michael Pennington's King Lear, and son Jonathan Minton's Algernon. Learning that Bening had been cast as Goneril was gravy. However, with an ascendant Iwuji and Eric Sheffer Stevens right there with him as Edmund, for the first time in my dozen viewings of this play on stage and on screen, the subplot becomes the main event.

I've always measured a King Lear production's success by whether it induces tears when Lear and Cordelia reunite and, later, when Lear carries the dead Cordelia on stage at the end. We saw this production before its official opening, and in the chattering audience around us, people laughed when Lithgow started Lear's "let's away to prison" speech (perhaps intentional) and chuckled as he entered howling with Cordelia in his arms (not the desired reaction, I'm sure). As Lear fretted over his daughter's dead body, the woman next to me took out her smartphone and checked her texts. Perhaps cast and audience improved over the course of the run; yet, Iwuji was already superlative. When not distracted by the bright smartphone screen, I was besotted by Iwuji's Edgar as Poor Tom, and I watched him with great sympathy in the last scene as he tried to process the catastrophe unfolding before him and then turning to stare at Edmund's body when hearing that his half brother was dead.

King Lear opened The Public's Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 1962, but the play hasn't been staged there since 1973. In this production, Director Daniel Sullivan goes sparse and ancient in his Druid society staging. Costume designer Susan Hilferty dresses the characters in prehistoric Briton clothing. John Lee Beatty's set is a bare, log platform raised three steps above the ground with flanking log benches and against a giant burlap backdrop; drawbridges lower from the back corners for the castle scenes. It's refreshing to see a bare platform stage for a Shakespeare play in a theater where in the past few years we've recently seen a full-scale frontier fort (As You Like It), jitterbug-era city street (The Comedy of Errors), an Italian Villa with gardens and groves (Much Ado About Nothing), and a northwoods mountain resort (Love's Labour's Lost). However, Sullivan seems uncertain what to do with all that space, so he fills it with movement: characters constantly mill about as they converse. It's all so ADHD in execution, and with the microphoned actors speaking through the Delacorte's surround-sound system, we're never sure who is talking.

Sullivan makes one significant change to the script. In the opening court scene, the Fool (Steven Boyer) enters with King Lear and Cordelia (Jessica Collins). Collins then delivers her asides to the Fool. This staging establishes the familial triangle at the center of Lear's life, as you see Lear's fondness for both youngest daughter and Fool, Cordelia doting on both her father and his Fool, and the Fool's feelings for both king and princess. The catastrophe that comes to fruition in the fifth act clearly starts here when Lithgow's Lear inexplicably and to the astonishment of all the court, including the daughters, launches the love contest among the three sisters. Collins' Cordelia is no glib politician like her sisters, who are ever maneuvering for political and financial power; sincerity is this Cordelia's anchor (that comes from having the Fool as her closest friend), and she "cannot heave my mouth into my heart." The tight bond of the center triangle is severed right before our eyes, and the tragedy takes root like ivy infesting the whole garden.

Aside from being the first time I've seen the Fool used in the play's first scene, this staging has forced me to reconsider the possibility that when Shakespeare first staged King Lear, the same actor played both Cordelia and the Fool. I've always pooh-poohed this theory because the Fool was likely originally played by Robert Armin, who specialized in such roles, and I couldn't see the 45-year-old thespian (a rather pudgy fellow, according to drawings) playing the young Cordelia. However, Mark Rylance illustrated how a 54-year-old man could believably play Olivia in an original practice Twelfth Night (alongside 34-year-old Samuel Barnett as Viola), and given Lear's age, his youngest daughter need not be in her 20s, let alone a teenager. Seeing how important the Fool's presence can be in that opening scene, I now wonder why Shakespeare didn't include him. Probably because Armin was already on stage: as Burgundy or France? Just as likely he could have been playing Cordelia.

From this foundation, Boyer builds his portrayal of the Fool. He remains bitter over Lear's estrangement from Cordelia, and this bitterness inspires and taints every one of his jokes. His is a heartbroken anger, that of a person who so loves the one who makes him angry that he can neither hate nor be indifferent. He must vent, and yet he can't help sympathizing with his frail master and his obviously failing mind. As for the Fool's mysterious disappearance in the play, Sullivan answers that by having him tarrying too long and being captured along with Gloucester after Kent hustles Lear off toward Dover. We are left to assume the Fool does not survive his trial before the Cornwalls.

Lithgow's performance as Lear is a learned one if not inspiring. He speaks the verse melodically and has full command of Shakespeare's language and how it parlays into his portrayal of an old king, obviously once majestic but now struggling to maintain some semblance of virility in both body and brain. He moves with little certainty and he's easily confused: by Cordelia's unwillingness to play along with public charades of affection, by Kent's claim of fealty despite questioning the king's judgment, and by the behavior of Goneril, Regan, and their households who don't treat him as a king. He counters his confusion by circling the wagons of his own stubbornness, thus casting away Cordelia, banishing Kent, and failing to see the true nature of Goneril and Regan.

He cannot reason the need for his large entourage except that he would have it so. But a new world order has overtaken him, and incapable of altering reality, he slips into a state of nonreality fixated on ungrateful daughters. This fixation proves to be a running joke in subsequent scenes. Thus, with Lear and Cordelia captured after the battle, when she asks. "Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?" Lithgow's Lear replies quickly and demonstratively, "No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison," an inflection that inspires the audience's laughter.

In defense of this Lear, his eldest daughters are a confusing pair, but not necessarily in the way Shakespeare intended. Bening plays a listless Goneril, as if she's looped, perhaps addicted to painkillers. Jessica Hecht is bipolar in her portrayal of Regan, shifting from purring to shrill in the middle of a line with no obvious reference point for the change. This is a woman who screams that Gloucester should have his eyes plucked out, takes part in that very act, and then wails in disgust at the gruesome results. Neither actress imbues her character with an ounce of real emotion, as if the sisters are meant to be archetypes of bad rather than humans moved for whatever reason to treat Lear the way they do. Collins' steady portrayal as Cordelia not only establishes why Lear considers her his favorite, it also insinuates that she avoided the addiction and insanity genes running through the rest of her family. Her portrayal has such nuanced details as her obvious preference for Burgundy in the opening scene—and dismay when he won't have her without the dowry (despite France rescuing her, she doesn't warm to him immediately)—and the way she moves to leave before her father wakes up in their reunion scene, afraid her presence might anger him.

The Gloucester brothers, meanwhile, are vividly presented. The production opens with a Druid ceremony (not in Shakespeare's script), and Edmund appears as a kind of acolyte, holding the bowl of spiritual water for the priest. After everybody exits at the end of the first scene, Edmund remains on stage, sighs loudly, blithely tosses the water away, and launches into his "stand up for bastards" speech, lacing it with sly cynicism. The good-looking Stevens exudes charm. The wonder is not that Goneril and Regan fight over him (well, they kind of get snitty about him in this production) but that Cordelia doesn't take note of him, too. He inspires respect among strangers (Kent, played with his own easy charm by Jay O. Sanders, describes Edmund as "proper" upon first meeting), affection in his father (a prim, proper, but heroic Clarke Peters), and true brotherly love from his half brother, Edgar. Stevens plays Edmund as a villain to the standard of duplicity notable in Iago and Iachimo, riding bucking opportunity wherever it takes him. Only when he sees it has carried him to his premature death at the hands of the brother he turned against does he finally land on repentance.

His villainous agility is put on display at a crux moment when he lies to Edgar of Gloucester's anger. "Some villain hath done me wrong," Edgar says, and Edmund replies, "That's my fear." Iwuji starts walking offstage as if to accost his father, but Stevens physically blocks his path as he continues Edmund's line: "I pray you have a continent forbearance till the speed of his rage goes slower." Iwuji's Edgar pauses at this. In this way the quick-thinking Edmund ratchets up the pressure on the unsuspecting Edgar.

Iwuji is an engaging Edgar, but his Poor Tom is mesmerizing. He speaks the mad beggar's fantastical lines as a man with occasional glimpses of sanity, like the sun dappling through a curtain undulating in the breeze. This, of course, means that not only is Iwuji an accomplished actor, but so is Edgar in playing out his disguise. He is so confident in his play-acting that he walks right up to Gloucester to identify himself as "Poor Tom; that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets; swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog; drinks the green mantle of the standing pool; who is whipped from tithing to tithing, and stock-punished, and imprisoned; who hath had three suits to his back, six shirts to his body, horse to ride, and weapon to wear; but mice and rats, and such small deer, have been Tom's food for seven long year." It's audacious of Edgar, not only toward Gloucester—who yet doesn't recognize Edgar—but toward the audience, too, as the physical juxtaposition of victim father and twice-victim son speaking these lines strikes his tragedy to the core of our sensibilities. Later comes another moving moment when Kent can't get Lear to sleep, so Edgar cradles the king's head in his arms and lullabies him with his gibberish about keeping the pack of dogs at bay. That speech usually is delivered as frenzied hallucination; this Edgar, though, uses his disguise to serve his king.

Goneril on the right strokes Edmund's beard with her fingertips; she is wearing a blue dress with a gray scarf draped over her arms and around her waist, he is in blue shirt, gray pants and gray leather vest.Such is the depth of Iwuji's portrayal as he leads Gloucester to Dover, tricks him into thinking he had survived a fall over the cliffs, watches heartbroken as his blind father and the mad Lear converse, and ultimately regrets that he never properly identified himself to his father the whole time he was leading him (like Cordelia, he can't be certain of the wrath he might incur). His fight with Edmund is a combat choreographer's wet dream: fight director Rick Sordelet has them raging back and forth and all around the stage with swords, shields, battle axes, spears, daggers, and fists. Edgar and Edmund appear to be equal in skills; the difference comes down to the hitherto careful Edmund giving way to abandon while Edgar channels the rage of living on pond scum and rat carcasses for too long and the grief of their mutilated father's too recent death to defeat his half brother. Yet, with the word that Edmund has died (lying off to the side of the stage), as Albany responds, "That's but a trifle here," it is not so for Edgar. He yet loves his brother—a full brother—that was. Iwuji staring over at dead Edmund brings home his utter despair in this moment of society's utter desolation.

Yes, King Lear's heart is about to crack over the loss of his Cordelia, Kent is about to take a journey still following his master, and Albany relinquishes his rule. All that's left is Edgar. As Iwuji looks about him, we feel great loss, and a glimmer of hope, too.

Eric Minton
August 20, 2014

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