by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

King Lear A Pallid Production
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Miller
The Vivian Beaumont Theater
Lincoln Center, New York
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden March 13, 2004

Bernard Gersten and Andre Bishop should be congratulated for their good intentions. Their last production "Henry IV" was a hit and now, once again, they have challenged the public with another Shakespeare masterpiece "King Lear." It seems a large audience is hungry for Shakespeare judging from the entirely sold out performances of this "Lear" staring Christopher Plummer and directed by Jonathan Miller. First let me say that Shakespeare's story of "King Lear" is something so grand, so remarkable and so compelling that regardless of the quality of a particular production one must always see it. But one must not always love the way it is played.

Jonathan Miller is a director with a big career and with very fixed ideas. He has staged "Lear" three times prior to this engagement, as well as numerous other plays, and directed opera for various companies both in New York and Europe. He is a supreme intellectual and, as a man with medical degree and a background of classical and modern literature, he can talk on any subject and, like a true English intellectual, he does--at length. So it is interesting to note his concept of "Lear."

In an interview with the "Lincoln Center Theater Review," Mr. Miller says that the play is really about "the nature of sovereignty and monarchy" and that Shakespeare "sees very clearly how the authority of fathers in the family is a microcosm of the monarch of the state." And further... "Lear quite clearly is someone who is not suited to the office...He is obviously a foolish man...and that the folly has been compounded by old age." Miller also says that too many people have claimed that 'Lear' is an epic or that the play has cosmic quality simply because there's a thunderstorm in it. "You have to have lightening and thunder, but you know, the storm itself only lasts five minutes. But people get excited by it and think that's cosmic."

These revealing statements, shallow as they are, determine Miller's direction: the result is a certain vacuity in the production and in Plummer's performance. (more on that later) The entire production is short of ideas. Shakespeare's "Lear" is not primarily about monarchs and monarchy--although it is part of the story. The play is about the existential problems of life--old age, mortality, integrity, love, moral blindness, filial love, filial ingratitude and unaccounted wickedness and cruelty. It is it is about the arrogance and loss of power; it is about the horror and stupidity of mankind and the treachery of the nameless gods who "kill us for their sport" and watch from afar as we mortals do our stupid work and murder each other in the process. It is about an old man who, at the end of his life, having endured immense suffering, finally reaches the stage of wisdom and is transformed into a real human being capable of love and super consciousness.

The play is so rich in ideas that reducing it to any single aspect is almost impossible. But for me, it is essential that a production of "Lear" be a moving and memorable experience. When Lear finds Cordelia and asks her forgiveness and finally sees "feelingly" (as does Gloucester) he has an epiphany. But in this production no such ephinmy takes place. In fact, owing to the strict intellectualism and manipulation of the director, Christopher Plummer's Lear is controlled, emotionally underplayed, and ultimately unrealized. Besides, the gorgeous poetry of Lear's lines are hampered by clumsy staging. In the opening scene as Lear divides his kingdom Cordelia stands in front of him with her back to the audience, so of course you can
not see her nor Lear, nor hear either of them. And again, in the Cordelia death scene one actor stands downstage covering Plummer, so that his great speech is muffled!!!. On the whole the production suffers from conventional, almost amateurish staging, inarticulate line readings, and unpleasant, untheatrical, inaudible voices. One thing I will say, the play moves very swiftly: no pauses are allowed between scenes. Before one scene is over, another is already entering. Maybe that's why so much of the meaning was lost.

As for Christopher Plummer. He is a fine actor; at times he catches something of Lear particularly in his angry moments and in his body movements but I could have done without the palsy hand because it calls attention to itself and is seems like a gimmick; you can play an old man without shaking. Plummer has a certain energy on stage, a certain theatricality and his speech is clear. But the heart of Lear is missing. His performance is not a rich one; the many layers of Lear's character are missing. The great storm scene on the heath is underplayed and quickly paced because, according to the director, it is only a small rain, and so what? That the scene is a cataclysmic storm connoting the meaning of the play doesn't seem to matter to Jonathan Miller. And so Plummer goes through it quickly without real force and it falls flat--it has no resonance. Again, in the reconciliation scene with Cordelia, Plummer is contained, indistinct, almost vague, and shows little feeling for the verse. Years ago I saw Paul Scoffield play "Lear" in the Peter Brook production in London. When Cordelia dies and Lear realizes she is gone forever, he says: "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life/And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,/Never never, never, never, never." To this day I recall that moment and Scoffield delivering those lines. That was 1963. Sorry to say I can't remember any such moment in this current production, and I only saw the play a few days ago.

Perhaps Plummer could have made it if he were not controlled by a director like Miller. At certain moments, he showed he had the possibility of giving a full performance, but that something restrained him. And that, indeed, is a pity. Another problem: in casting a star, the rest of the company seldom lives up to the main actor. And this cast proves the point: they were extremely inept. The worst offenders were the two wicked daughters with their ridiculous hairstyles, albeit their gorgeous costumes. What is the meaning of that hair? Every time Regan turned profile, one could not see her; that massive lump of hair covered her face--surely the stupidest costuming I have ever seen. Their acting, like the rest of the cast, was undefined, low key, and dull. James Blendick, as the blind Gloucester, came closest to achieving some emotion.

One of the reasons for the mediocrity of this production might be that in staging this mountain of a play, a director needs an ensemble that has worked together. The great Shakespeare productions of Peter Hall, Peter Brook, and Trevor Nunn in the past were so successful not because they were British, but because these directors were part of The Royal Shakespeare Company whose actors not only had enormous experience playing various Shakespearian roles but also knew each other, had worked together, and were integrated into a unit. To gather an American company together today that has that kind of experience with Shakespeare is a problem. But of course people do try and that is commendable after all. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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