TIO NYC: “King Lear” at BAM

TIO NYC: “King Lear” at BAM

The play about a really bad dad on a power trip who trips and falls is over. Shakespeare’s “King Lear ” is dead and buried. We were in the audience for the final matinee on Sunday, April 29. Sorry you missed it, but we are all, in a way, living it.


Up next at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is a drama about love, illness and addiction: Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Tickets here.

For full review of King Lear, go here. For my take, read on.

Sher’s mad King Lear, courtesy BAM.

Among the cognoscenti, uber brainy lit critics,”King Lear” is regarded as Shakespeare’s best tragedy, outranking “Hamlet.” If so, that arguably makes the production the most important play by the most important playwright ever written in the English language.

Why is the play so mind-bogglingly important? And why does its story resonant so loudly for today’s audiences, for us and for the Telluride friends who sat next to us, watching BAM’s production for the second time?

Could the answer have something to do with the current national zeitgeist? Because the national political drama playing out in a capital near you is also a personal family drama, encapsulating two timeless, much repeated universal themes? In other words, when it’s all about politics writ large and family politics, linked and heading south, we have to pay attention: the consequences of the folly are potentially deadly. In that context, “Lear” mimics Cassandra – and today’s political swamp mimics “Lear.”

“Lear” is also a play about seeing the truth or being blind to it, literally (in one sad case) and metaphorically.

The leading role of the mad king is considered the Everest of all parts for aging actors, so not surprisingly, theatrical titans such as Frank Langella, Ian McKellan, even Glenda Jackson, have assumed the royal mantle with relish, each interpreting Lear’s descent into full crazy differently.

BAM’s elegantly minimal production starred the 68-year-old Olivier-winning actor Sir Antony Sher, whose pint size belies his powerful chops and becomes a metaphor for monumental power dwarfed, then felled, by a kind of internal blindness and related bad choices. It’s all about what happens when flattery and deceit, err, trump true, undecorated love, when the high and mighty repeatedly shout into the wind.

Beneath a pagan sun (symbolized by large golden disc) eclipsed by a bleak winter (in the form of a smaller, dark, disc), Sher’s Lear growls, inhabiting the self-searching conscience of a king who—after unwisely bequeathing his lands to the wrong people— causes heads to roll.

“King Lear,” a synopsis of the story:

Lear’s youngest, Cordelia, wearing white for innocence and for the pure, unadorned truth.

When the play opens, King Lear decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. When the youngest (and favorite) Cordelia refuses to make a public declaration of love for her father, she is disinherited and married to the King of France without a dowry.

The Earl of Kent defends her and is banished by Lear and the two elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, inherit the kingdom.

Deceived by his bastard son Edmund, Gloucester disinherits his legitimate son, Edgar, who is forced to go into hiding to save his life.

Lear, now stripped of his power, quarrels with Goneril and Regan about the conditions of his lodging in their households. In a rage he goes out into the stormy night, accompanied by his Fool and Kent, now disguised as a servant. They encounter Edgar, disguised as a mad beggar Tom.

Gloucester goes to help Lear, but is betrayed by Edmund and captured by Regan and Cornwall who, as a punishment, put out his eyes. Lear is taken secretly to Dover, where Cordelia has landed with a French army.

The blind Gloucester meets—but doesn’t recognize—Edgar, who leads him to Dover. Lear and Cordelia are reconciled but in the ensuing battle are captured by the sisters’ forces. Goneril and Regan are in love with Edmund, who encourages them both.

Discovering this, Goneril’s husband Albany forces Edmund to defend himself against the charge of treachery. A disguised Edgar arrives to challenge Edmund and, after fatally wounding him, reveals himself.

News comes that Goneril has poisoned Regan and then committed suicide. Before dying, Edmund reveals that he has ordered the deaths of Lear and Cordelia. He attempts to reprieve the order – but it is too late.

“King Lear,” art imitating life:

 James Shapiro on the hidden cracks in James I’s “Great Britain,” and how Shakespeare’s play was entirely of its moment, excerpted from the BAM program notes.

In the summer of 1605 an old and anonymous Elizabethan play, “The True Chronicle History of King Leir,” was belatedly printed.

It told the story of a British king and his three daughters and ended happily, with the old king restored to his throne and reconciled with his youngest daughter, Cordella. Not long after copies appeared in London’s bookstalls, Shakespeare almost surely acquired one: his version of the story borrows so extensively from the old play that his indebtedness couldn’t have come solely from his recollection of seeing it staged, or even from possibly having acted in it years earlier. The profusion of echoes confirms that reading the recently printed edition proved to be a catalyst for the play now forming in his mind. King Leir’s survival allows us a glimpse of Shakespeare as literary architect—performing a gut renovation of the old original, preserving the frame, salvaging bits and pieces of its language, and transposing outmoded features in innovative ways (including, for the first and only time in one of his tragedies, introducing a subplot, concerning Gloucester and his two sons, which he lifted from Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia).

Three years into the reign of the new monarch, James I, Shakespeare had managed to turn an old Elizabethan tragicomedy into a play that spoke to his own increasingly fraught Jacobean times.

Shakespeare probably began writing King Lear shortly after he picked up a copy of the old play, by late summer or autumn of 1605. Because his new play was not performed at court until the Christmas season of 1606, it is unlikely that it was finished and first staged at the Globe before the early months of 1606. By then, current events had overtaken the play. One was the political rift provoked by King James’ doomed efforts to unify the kingdoms of England and Scotland. The creation of “Great Britain” seemed both necessary and inevitable to James, long King of Scots and, since the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, England’s ruler as well.

He even had a “Unite” coin minted and ordered that a new flag, one familiar to us now as the Union Jack, be flown. But in pressing the unpopular case for Union he forced upon his subjects an unwished-for identity crisis: what exactly did it mean to be British? With support for Union eroding, King James planned a major and long-delayed speech before Parliament on November 5, 1605. Knowing that, the Gunpowder plotters—a group of 20 or so disaffected Catholic gentry—hid explosives beneath the House of Lords that they intended to detonate that day, thereby destroying the royal family along with the nation’s political and religious leadership, in the hope of rolling back the Reformation and returning to the longedfor days of England’s Catholic past. Their plot had nationalist overtones as well: the Venetian ambassador reported home that the plotters had prepared a hit list of “all the houses inhabited by Scots, so that after the explosion they could be massacred.” The surviving plotters were hunted down, tried, and brutally executed in late January 1606 and the aftershocks of their failed attack would be felt for many months to come. The divisions over Union, and the lingering suspicion of English Catholics, had the unintended consequence of exposing long-hidden cracks in the social foundation.

Whether Shakespeare sensed and responded directly to what was going on around him, or alternatively stumbled on a story that resonated so powerfully with the times, King Lear proved to be of its moment.

The play begins with talk of the “division of the kingdom” and soon enough Britain is split into three parts—more or less corresponding to Scotland; Cornwall and the West; and London and the South East. A European dimension is introduced as well: Shakespeare departs from the example of King Leir, where Leir’s youngest daughter was to have married an Irishman, preferring to complicate the story by having his Cordelia marry the King of France.

Shakespeare had written a dark play for dark times, its lessons as potent four centuries later.

James Shapiro’s most recent book is “1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear.” His next will be “Shakespeare in a Divided America.




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