Monday, April 22, 2019

Sound and Fury: King Lear

Jayne Houdyshell and Glenda Jackson in King Lear. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Of the thirteen or fourteen professional productions of King Lear I’ve sat through, the current Broadway revival, directed by Sam Gold and starring Glenda Jackson, repeating her London comeback performance in the title role, is the worst. It grinds on for a grueling three hours and thirty minutes without, as far as I could tell, any concept to unify it. Gold has given it a contemporary setting. The handsome set (by the gifted British designer Miriam Buether, whose recent credits include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Jungle and Three Tall Women) is black and gold, with a long banquet table midway up the stage that is meant to evoke the regal elegance of the various castles – Lear’s, Albany’s, Gloucester’s – where much of the play takes place, especially in the first half. Much of the time the actors, including those who are not called on for the scene at hand, sit at the table or, more often, on chairs around the periphery of the stage; this is certainly the most static Lear of my theatergoing experience. Gold hasn’t shown much talent for staging in the past, and with twenty actors on the stage he’s truly at sea. He lets them meander or shoves them into corners of the stage; in the opening scene, where almost everyone in the ensemble gathers to witness Lear’s division of his kingdom among his three daughters, the presence of a signer (Michael Arden) cues us that one of the actors is deaf but because he has almost no lines in the scene and he’s been placed in the middle of a clump of actors, I couldn’t tell which one until several scenes later. (It turns out to be Russell Harvard, playing the Duke of Cornwall.) When Lear wanders out into the storm, an abstract gold backdrop flies in. Since there are exterior scenes in the latter half of the play, after the backdrop has flown back out again, there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the shift beyond framing the heath and hovel scenes – and since, confusingly, this section of the play includes one exchange that takes place inside Gloucester’s castle, even that idea isn’t followed through.

This is also the noisiest Lear I can remember. Gold makes the classic blunder of making the storm so goddamn loud that the actors have to shout to be heard over it; Scott Lehrer gets the blame for the sound design, but the problem is exacerbated by Philip Glass’s jangling score, which sometimes sounds like hurdy-gurdy music experienced on acid and adds other level of distraction. In this storm it’s not just that the elements seem to be set against Lear; the creative forces (for lack of a better phrase) that collaborated on the sequence seem to be set against poor Glenda Jackson, whose reading of the great “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks” speech is upstaged utterly. Elsewhere in the production the Glass music wafts importantly around Lear’s pronouncements (his curses on his daughters, his banishment of Kent and so on), though at least in those moments it doesn’t conspire to drown him out. The score is played, with heroic fortitude and commitment, by four musicians (two violinists, Cenovia Cummins and Martin Agee; a violist, Chris Cardona; and a cellist, Stephanie Cummins) whose appearance in formal concert dress becomes more ridiculous as the war takes over the narrative in the last quarter of the play. It’s far from the only time in the play that the costume choices seem ill-advised. Harvard’s Cornwall wears a kilt, for some reason, and I can’t account for the atrocities that the usually brilliant designer, Ann Roth, has dumped on Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan). The imposingly tall O’Sullivan wears a green vest and gold pantaloons and during the war Marvel wears a shapeless shift and is bare-legged, apparently because she tossed off her trousers during a sex scene with Edmund (Pedro Pascal) – one of Gold’s sillier interpolations – and never puts them, or any other leg coverings, on again.

The fact that Jackson has to compete with so much noise during the storm is symptomatic of a greater trouble. Except for her and Ruth Wilson, who is double-cast as Cordelia and the Fool, and perhaps Marvel, no one on the stage seems to be trained to read the verse. Now I know that’s not true of John Douglas Thompson, cast as Gloucester; he’s played Othello and many other Shakespearean roles, not to mention Marlowe and Eugene O’Neill. So I have to assume that Wood has directed him to downplay his technique. Why, for God’s sake? So that the other actors, two of who have undisguisable diction issues, won’t sound out of place in a production of King Lear? Isn’t that rather pointless, considering that Jackson, whose technique is world-renowned, is playing the title role? As it happens, even burying his vocal training, Thompson is one of the few bright spots in the show; he gives a warm, affecting performance, especially in the scene where he covers the maddened king with a blanket and gently tugs his sleeping body into the wings. (Though she can’t quite overcome the hurdle of the double-casting – which may never have worked since Will Kemp presumably played both roles in Burbage’s company during Shakespeare’s time – Ruth Wilson is another bright spot.) But Gold illustrates over and over again that he doesn’t think the language is important. O’Sullivan shrieks many of her lines or attenuates the syllables so they stop making sense; her Regan comes across as so unbalanced that her reference to “the lunatic king” at one point is inadvertently ironic. Pascal gives a clumsy reading of Edmund’s “Stand up for bastards” soliloquy that is made even more unfortunate by his habit of gesticulating on every line, so that we get, in effect, the Classics Illustrated Comics version of the speech. Jayne Houdyshell reads Gloucester’s lines slowly and deliberately, as if she were mostly worried about being understood. Houdyshell has one good moment, when she reads the letter Edmund wrote to frame his legitimate brother Edgar (Sean Carvajal) for conspiring against their father’s life and we can feel the character’s pain and bewilderment at being treated so badly by a son on whom he has lavished so much affection. But she’s ill-equipped to convey the rhythm and subtlety of the language, and the fact that a woman has been cast as Gloucester, whose first scene includes jocular allusions to the merry sex that produced Edmund, is so jarring that her performance probably couldn’t recover from it even if she were better.

I understand that we’re all supposed to think nowadays that non-traditional casting is so righteous that it carries all before it, but putting a woman in the role of Gloucester demands that we stop up our ears and pretend that, evidently like Sam Gold, we don’t have any common sense. And if you cast a deaf man as Cornwall and give his lines to his signer, then the shocking malevolence in the character’s lines is muted. Gold tries for a Brechtian effect (I guess) by having the signer be the servant who is so appalled by Cornwall’s blinding of Gloucester that he kills his master, but it doesn’t work. And since the servant can’t stand against Cornwall and speak for him at the same time, their entire climactic exchange is rendered in sign language, which most of the audience can’t understand.

An actress playing Lear doesn’t have the same textual problems as an actress playing Gloucester, and a performer of Glenda Jackson’s stature really can transcend gender, as Helen Mirren did when she played Prospero. Jackson’s performance in Three Tall Women last season was one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting I’ve seen in my life, and it would be pleasant to be able to report that she redeems the ordeal. It’s undeniable that she floats above the idiocy of the production, but truth to tell, I didn’t get much out of her Lear aside from her technique. Her diminutive frame accentuated by formal wear, she brings across the title character’s frailty but never his grandeur. I was certainly impressed by the straightforwardness and the deceptive simplicity of her approach but until the very last scene, where Lear cradles Cordelia’s hanged body, I wasn’t moved. And if Lear doesn’t move you, it doesn’t matter very much what else the actor achieves.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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