King Lear by William Shakespeare
Co-Produced by the Folger Theatre and the Classical Theatre of Harlem
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn has called Shakespeare "a playwright for our town" and in no play is it more evident than in King Lear. In Lear, power is acquired through lies and flattery, maintained through blood violence, and surrendered, kicking and screaming, in abject humiliation. The Classical Theatre of Harlem (clearly the lead partner in this production, at least on the artistic side) readily identifies the surreal, hallucinatory intensity of the play, and delivers the goods with the physicality for which it has become justly celebrated. The cast is stuffed with award-winners, including Emmy awardee and Tony nominee Dr. André De Shields as Lear, and the Director, Alfred Preisser, is a co-founding member of Classical Theatre of Harlem.
Why is it, then, that after this exhausting production is over you feel as though you’ve eaten a seven-course meal with no entrée?
The problem may lie in Preisser’s and De Shields’ decision (given De Shields’ stature, I assume the decision was reached collaboratively) not to imbue the character of Lear with warmth, dignity or gravity prior to his fatal rejection of Cordelia (Christina Sajous) for her failure to sufficiently flatter him. Lear, remember, is a great king who is prepared to divide his patrimony among his three daughters. He is one of those rare leaders who understands that, as the Book of Ecclesiastes suggests, there is a time for everything, and it is now his time to prepare for death. But, borne of insecurity or ego, he first requires that they tell him how much they love him. Goneril (Chantal Jean-Pierre) and Regan (Deidra LeWan Starnes), spinmeisters both, gush at length about their daughterly devotion, but Cordelia refuses to improve on the truth of her feelings. Her honesty wins her exile.
While Cordelia spoke truth to power, Goneril and Regan spoke truth’s opposite. They both in fact hate Lear, and once seized of his former Kingdom they waste no time in reducing their father to poverty and insignificance. Although the story has a linear object – Cordelia’s doomed effort to rescue her father – the dramatic center is Lear’s mind-numbing realization of how badly he has misjudged all three of his daughters, and, by implication, how much of a lie his own life has been.
The soul-blighting cosmic blast of negation which comes from this agonized man cannot help but make us sad, no matter what we thought of him originally. But how much more intense it would have been if we could have understood that Lear was in his day a great king, and a great man! Suppose, for example, that the New Jersey real estate market crashed and as a result Donald Trump lost all and was forced to become a greenskeeper. We might feel sorry for the man, watching him rake the sand pit in his chinos and Izod shirt, his celebrated toupee sold to make the rent, but we would not be moved, since he had lost only money, not dignity. But if Nelson Mandela was somehow brought down by fate, and we could do nothing to help, we would be moved to tears.
The English of Shakespeare’s time believed Lear to have been an authentic historical figure, the tenth King of England (Shakespeare originally wrote Lear as a history, not a tragedy), and the "real" Lear was a wise and learned man, an English Solomon. Preisser brings him back another eleven hundred years in time, and puts his suzentry on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (while leaving the references to European place names undisturbed). Lear is got up as an Oriental potentate, with golden sandals. To descend from a platform he steps on the prone body of Edmund (Ty Jones), the bastard son of Gloucester (Harold Surratt). This is a vain and petty King; when he announces straightaway that his mission is to divest himself of earthly cares to prepare for death ("’tis our fast intent/To shake all cares and business from our age;/Conferring them on younger strengths, while we/Unburthen’d crawl toward death") the court laughs, and so does he. The King, he implies, intends to par-tay.
Classical Theatre of Harlem has trimmed this play considerably – as it must, to be producible today – and Lear hurtles into his fatally tardy insight in short order. Cast out into the storm and targeted for death by his two gleeful daughters, Lear insanely concludes that the moral order is turned upside down, stripping himself nearly naked, praising the things that society condemns (for adultery and bastardy: "let copulation thrive!"), and insisting that a local beggar is actually a great philosopher. (He is, in fact, something more interesting: Gloucester’s other son, Edgar, played by Danyon Davis.) In this scene De Shields made another choice I found puzzling: to tack a short "a" sound after virtually every word that ended in a consonant: Poor-a naked wretches-a, whereso’er-a you are. The effect is similar to that achieved by some evangelical preachers, who thus assure that the sound of each word is distinct. If this is what De Shields intended to invoke, I cannot imagine why, since Lear here is howling, not preaching.
Many lines intended for the Fool (the rubber-faced Ken Schatz) were also excised; this further robbed Lear of our sympathy, since the Fool serves as a constant reminder of the foolishness of Lear’s judgment of his daughters, and of the consequences of his decision.
King Lear has a subplot: the treachery of Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund, who seeks to dispossess Edgar, born of lawful marriage, and to eventually to bring his father low. Classical Theater of Harlem carried this subplot off more successfully, in large part due to the exuberant villainy of Jones as Edmund. Like other classic Shakespearean bad guys (Iago, say, or Richard III) Edmund tromps over the fourth wall with impunity, sharing a joke with the audience and periodically outlining his next outrageous plot. These passages can be self-conscious, but Jones made them seem perfectly natural. He even hauled some hapless audience member out of his seat to help him decide whether he should court Regan – at that point, a self-made widow – or the licentious, adulterous Goneril – or both! Jones, who is built along the lines of a younger, smaller Mike Tyson, displayed an amazing athleticism, somersaulting, performing cartwheels, and executing standing jumps which seemed to me to be considerably in excess of three feet.
Gloucester is a friend and admirer of Lear, and his determination to help his old friend – revealed to the daughters by the treacherous Edmund – result in his blinding at the hands of Regan’s husband Cornwall (Francis Mateo). This scene is done with horrific verisimilitude, as it must be. Gloucester’s blinding discomforted some members of the press-night audience, as did Regan’s death, but Preisser made the right choice here. King Lear, like Titus Andronicus, is meant to be full of gore, and the production will not improve on Shakespeare by modifying him. If wet work makes you queasy, I recommend that you stick to the Comedies.
Don’t misunderstand me. There is considerable merit – even glory – to this production. As much as I disagree with some of his important choices, De Shields is an actor of obvious power and authenticity. This production is beautifully rendered, and Preisser has made dozens of excellent, even brilliant, decisions.
I just wish he had made a few more.
King Lear runs Tuesdays through Sundays until February 18. Tuesday through Thursday shows at 7.30 pm; Friday and Saturday shows at 8 pm; and Sunday shows at 7 pm. Additional matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. There are no shows on January 23 and January 30, both Tuesdays. Tickets range from $25 to $50 and are available at the box office (202.544.7077) or website (www.folger.edu/theatre). There are some interesting presentations done in connection with the show; check them out on the website.