King Lear begins with a foolish ruler swayed by flattery, and ends with what Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Greg Doran calls “a strange, profound unease.” Shakespeare’s tragedy is, in other words, as relevant as ever. And director Doran’s often visually arresting if rarely shattering production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, which stars Antony Sher as Lear, is as good as any to remind us of the Bard’s insights into stormy times, and the self-delusions of the powerful.
An exhibition in the theater lobby offers brief descriptions of some of the actors who “have portrayed Lear in defining fashion, from haggard wanderer to petulant madman” — from the 19th century’s Edward Forrest and Edwin Booth to Ian MacKellen, Derek Jacobi and Frank Langella, all three of whom recently took on what’s often called Shakespeare’s Mount Everest of a role at the same theater where Antony Sher is performing it through April 29th. The surely unintended effect is to prompt comparison with those previous performances.
The exhibition actually derives from Sher’s new book about Lear, “Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries.” Sir Antony is an author, artist, novelist, and, above all, a respected Shakespearean actor for nearly half a century. I have no doubt he knows what he’s doing. But I didn’t quite know what he was doing when he entered the stage sitting on an elevated throne as high as an elephant, enclosed in plexiglass like the Pope, but smothered in heavy fur like a geriatric Genghis Khan.
It is a stately procession, but at its center, rather than a still commanding monarch (as, for example, Langella was in the Chichester Festival production at BAM) Sher as Lear seems like a tired, distracted old guy ready for retirement. As a result, there is a less vertiginous descent, after Goneril (stand-out Nia Gwynne) and Regan, the two daughters to whom he’s given his kingdom (over the more loyal Cordelia), belittle and betray him. When Lear’s gone full-out mad, Sher seems almost amiably if not downright adorably feeble, not somebody who has completely snapped from the unbearable pressure of his own bad choices and the dark chaos of the universe.
Sher does have some powerful moments. But it’s telling that our attention is riveted towards the parallel plot involving the Earl of Gloucester, who himself foolishly favored his evil son, Edmund, over his loyal progeny Edgar. All three of the actors are splendid. David Troughton is deeply moving as Gloucester, Oliver Johnstone is engaging as the soil-smeared pretend-mad Edgar, and Paapa Essiedu makes an impressive U.S. stage debut as the cool sociopath Edmund. (Essiedu is coming to the Kennedy Center in May to portray the title role of RSC’s production of Hamlet.)
Edmund and Edgar engage in an exciting sword fight – using heavy, clacking medieval blades where you can hear every thwack, not those namby-pamby fencing foils. It’s just one of several examples of welcome RSC stagecraft. (Less welcome, as it almost always is, is the Gloucester eye-plucking scene, weirdly taking place within a plexiglass cage that becomes splattered with his blood.) One crafty touch is the casting of 20 amateur actors from Brooklyn to portray knights, vagrants, hunters, battling soldiers in shadow behind a scrim….and mounds of earth – that’s anyway what they appear to be, crouched and shrouded in black, as we enter the theater before the show begins.
Even for those for whom the crisply delivered iambic pentameter might as well be Elvish, there is enough to see – and, thanks to Ilona Sekacz’s portentous music of drum rolls and horn blasts, to hear – to keep one involved, if not always transfixed, through the 210 minutes (including intermission) in which this epic production unfolds.
King Lear is on stage at BAM’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NY 11217) through April 29, 2018.
Tickets and details
King Lear by William Shakespeare . Directed by Gregory Doran . Antony Sher as Lear, Paapa Essiedu as Edmund, Mimi Ndiweni as Cordelia, Romayne Andrews (Regan’s Servant), James Clyde (Cornwall), James Cooney (Regan’s Servant), Patrick Elue (Burgundy), Kevin N. Golding (Curan), Tracy-Anne Green (Regan’s Servant), Nia Gwynne (Goneril), Oliver Johnstone (Edgar), Whitney Kehinde (Regan’s Messenger), Byron Mondahl (Oswald), Esther Niles (Regan’s Messenger), John Omole (Lear’s Gentleman), Clarence Smith (Albany), Buom Tihngang (France), Graham Turner (Fool), Ewart James Walters (Old Man), and Kelly Williams (Regan). Set design by Niki Turner . Lighting design by Tim Mitchell . Music by Ilona Sekacz . Sound design by Jonathan Ruddick . Movement by Michael Ashcroft . Fights by Bret Yount . Produced by Royal Shakespeare Company . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.