King Lear: Not Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth

Courtesy of the Lincoln Center Festival and the Park Avenue Armory, England’s Royal Shakespeare Company has moved into the Armory for a six-week residency, presenting five of the poet’s works in repertory. King Lear, the third of the productions to open here, was my first encounter with the company since their embarrassing seasons at BAM some years back, when the disastrous artistic leadership of Adrian Noble had dragged it down to a distressingly low condition.

Fortunately, the British themselves caught on; they are slow about certain things, but not entirely dense. When Noble announced his plan to demolish the company’s home base at Stratford-upon-Avon and replace it with a six-plex, since there was insufficient audience interest to sustain larger productions, Sir Michael Gambon led a campaign to oust him. Under pressure, Noble stepped down.

Since then, Michael Boyd, Noble’s successor as artistic director, has been laboring, with steady success, to pull the company up out of the aesthetic trough in which his predecessor left it. To gauge from David Farr’s production of King Lear—and I grant that one production out of five is not sufficient evidence on which to judge—the RSC has now climbed back to a nice level of competent, tourist-trap Shakespeare, highly suitable for summer festivals, not dishonorable, but not particularly justifying any claims to high artistic stature or distinction.

It’s just a new remix of the old Shakespeare business, applying a few gimmicks from this or that currently fashionable mode of staging, displaying a few interesting performances that utilize this or that current acting approach. There’s no particular overarching interpretation, no particular sense of a shared commitment in the playing, and—especially saddening, since the play is King Lear—the result evokes little intensity of feeling and virtually no cumulative effect. Thinking back, I realize that I’ve actually never before seen an audience leave a performance of Lear in such a neutral state. After the obligatory standing O and the company’s return for a second bow, the applauding public simply files out, neither starkly somber nor exhilarated, merely chatting casually about their latest cultural acquisition. The idea that Lear might mean something to them, that there might be reasons for seeing it other than its presence on a required-viewing list of masterpieces, has never been broached by the event.

With its large, square thrust stage and its multi-tiered galleries of audience seating, the performance space the RSC has constructed inside the Armory’s vast main hall suggests an odd merger: half an early-19th-century playhouse and half a mid-20th-century modernist attempt to recapture the Elizabethan stage’s out-front intimacy with the public. What takes place on it, however, adds a third element to this increasingly peculiar concoction. While the auditorium’s high tiers do indeed provoke a certain amount of 1840s-style barnstorming from the company, what alternates with it is not the bold declarative simplicity you would expect the mostly bare stage to encourage, but a minute, reined-in, TV-naturalism style, which often smothers the poetry, occasionally wiping out the audibility as well. The constant alternation of the two turns the play into a kind of evening-long dither. The big declamation never builds to grandeur, and the close-to-the-vest nattering almost never yields any incisive detail; instead, seesawing, they cancel each other out.

Greg Hicks, the production’s Lear, is less a tragically willful Shakespearean king than the central plank on this vocal and emotional seesaw. Though he’s clearly capable of a grand, thundering moment, and catches a few of them very well, his principal stock-in-trade is an underling’s modest pathos, varied by a kind of self-conscious, talk-show-host funniness suggesting that this Lear might indeed aspire to change places with his Fool. No Lear has ever invited hurricanoes to roar so meekly, and I doubt that any other has ever treated the curse on his two elder daughters as a standup routine. Nor do any of his effects seem particularly connected to each other, or to any notion of Lear as a person from whom they might emerge; it’s just a check-off list of—mostly small—effects.

Hicks’s small-scale playing, in a role so big and central, saps the energy of an event that already seems hazy and muddled in conception. Jon Bausor’s designs mingle vague hints of the medieval with a mostly World War I–era look; composer Keith Clouston and sound designer Christopher Shutt send plainchant wafting through castles inhabited by frock-coated gentlemen; the electronic crashes that abstractly indicate the storm scenes are matched by Jon Clark with zaps of fluorescent light. Nobody wants to quibble about “period” when a Shakespeare play is transplanted: The intention is to give the play a look, and a sound, that will supply an access point between Shakespeare’s time and ours. But as Callas says in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, “You’ve got to have a look.” Farr’s King Lear doesn’t have a look; its disparate devices simply lie there next to each other, like items stored in a theatrical warehouse, waiting to be used.

A few acting victories, or at least semi-victories, get snatched out of the muddle. Sophie Russell makes a pertly sardonic, if slightly monochrome, Fool; Katy Stephens’s Regan uses burbly-schoolgirl cuteness, intriguingly, to mask her viciousness; James Tucker supplies a suitably smug Oswald. Farr offers one interesting stroke of interpretive casting by making Edmund extremely young, a callow adolescent; it misfires because Tunji Kasim seems altogether too callow to understand most of what he’s saying.

The two best performances, Geoffrey Freshwater’s Gloucester and Charles Aitken’s Edgar, both do something that no one else in the company, or Farr, seems to have thought about: Each gives his character a trajectory, building from what they begin as to what they become; and each makes sure that every moment along that route receives the correct emotional weight. As a result, their journey to Dover, with one character blinded and the other going from disguise to disguise, brings the evening its only moving passages. For the rest, it’s Shakespeare tidbits as usual, but after what the RSC’s been through, business as usual constitutes a distinct improvement.

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