Friday, March 05, 2004
Reviews are out for King Lear, a Stratford Festival production come to New York. Here's the NY Times and here's the Wall Street Journal.
And here's my review of the original Stratford production:
KING LEAR: This was the big disappointment of the season. (I had low expectations for The Swanne, which were met, so no disappointment there.) Not because it was a bad production; it was a good production. But the director was Jonathan Miller and the lead was Christopher Plummer, and I expected greatness. And I didn't get it. The production was set in the Elizabethan era, which is a risky proposition, but a bold one. We are used to Lear being set in a Time of Legends or in our own day (or, rather, our own recent past; Lear seems very much a piece with the age of Eliot and Beckett). We are not used to such savagery from men who wear codpieces, and when we see it, we expect it to look like Richard III. Edmund is too deep and philosophical a villain; he is somehow diminished when put in period costume. But the big failure was not the setting but the weakness in several key roles - specifically, Gloucester, the Fool, and Lear. Gloucester was played by James Blendick, whom I enjoyed immensely as Titus and as Sir Toby Belch. But it says something that he was far more moving as Titus, a homicidal maniac who deserves all his suffering, than as Gloucester, whose eyes are put out for simple-mindedness and folly, no more. Gloucester moves his estranged son Edgar to deep and sorrowful pity; if he does not so move us, something is very wrong with the performance. Indeed, it goes awry long before this, when he fails to manifest the depth of anger and betrayal one would expect when he is convinced that Edgar seeks his life. The utter loss of Gloucester leaves a hole in the heart of the drama, for the comparison and contrast of Lear and Gloucester - whom I see as the pagan and Christian response to unfathomable suffering - is crucial to the functioning of the play. Next, the fool. I like Barry MacGregor alot. He did a great job as Bardolph in last year's Henry plays, and he was excellent this year is Col. Pickering in My Fair Lady. But his Fool is imcomprehensible and lacking in feeling. And so distant from Lear! It's an incomprehensible performance. Finally, Lear himself. Plummer is a great actor, and knows what he is doing. He is utterly convincing as an old man betrayed by his daughters. In fact, I could not help but think of my own recently-departed grandfather, whom I loved dearly - but did I do all for him that I should have? I don't know. But my grandfather was not a king, as Lear should be, every inch of him. Watching Plummer, you have no sense of why Kent, or Albany, or any of the others who are loyal to Lear should be so. He has no majesty about him, not even majesty in ruins. And there is no sense, as he howls in the storm, that the storm is the consequence of the betrayal of the king; no sense, when he meets poor Tom, that he the communion he has with this supposed madman is communion with his own people in their most wretched condition. His is a very private tragedy, and that is a catastrophic reduction of Lear. The symbolic moment for me of the whole drama was when Lear, instead of carrying the dead Cordelia on-stage in the last scene, drags her on. Now I know Plummer has a bad back; I'm not saying he should break it for the sake of the role. But that distance between them is maintained to the end - he does not even look into her face as he dies! She could be in another room as he has a vision of her living - it makes a complete hash of his end; there's no pathos in it at all if he isn't looking at her, deluded into thinking she is alive. Again, it's incomprehensible to me. I have a feeling that the director - or Plummer, or both - was afraid of bathos, and so sacrificed pathos. That's no way to treat Lear, the most pathetic of tragedies. There were strengths in the play; Edmund and Edgar were both played finely, as was Cordelia, and Domini Blythe's Goneril was very strong, one to remember (not so Lucy Peacock's Regan). But it's not enough. The heart of the play is hollowed out by self-consciousness, and I was left mostly with a sense of regret that they did not offer the role to Brian Bedford, whose Lear would, I suspect, have been quite interesting, judging by his Timon.
I haven't decided yet whether to see the New York production.