King Lear

Article Image
Photo Source: Stephanie Berger

It came as no surprise when, after seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company's seamless account of "King Lear," I read in director David Farr's bio that he is also a playwright. Farr's lucid, beautifully balanced production serves the text insightfully at every turn. Greg Hicks' excellent performance in the title role eschews star-turn theatrics yet is still commanding and deeply felt. For Farr and his fine ensemble, it's clear that the play's the thing.

Hicks' Lear is very much a man of his world and times rather than a baleful giant bestriding them. In Lear's crucial first scene with his three daughters, Hicks has the monarch revel in his ability to manipulate people. Lear doesn't seem to genuinely believe Goneril's and Regan's protestations of overwhelming love; he just enjoys being able to make them say it. The implacable impassivity on Cordelia's face when she refuses to follow suit suggests that she is annoyed by her father's behavior, which nicely precipitates his sudden, childish rage at her.

Indeed, it's just such shallow petulance at Goneril and Regan's refusal to house his retinue that later sends Lear out into the storm to wallow in an ocean of operatic self-pity that eventually drowns him in madness. It's the loss of power, not the realization of the absence of love, that undoes this Lear, and while that may not be a new approach, Hicks charts it expertly. He's particularly effective in the mad scenes, giving us a clear descent into madness as well as a nuanced retreat from it.

The 21-person company meshes effortlessly in a joint endeavor in storytelling. Kelly Hunter and Katy Stephens are highly believable sisters as Goneril and Regan, and both sensibly avoid wearing their characters' villainy on their sleeves. These women seem at first to be nothing more than exasperated daughters humoring their willful father, allowing the extent of their treachery to be revealed gradually. Samantha Young's rather butch Cordelia is quite convincing as a warrior. Darrell D'Silva radiates reason and rectitude as the Earl of Kent, then really lets fly when disguised as the humble Caius. Colloquial, working-class, and full of macho attitude, this Caius makes it easy to understand why Lear doesn't recognize him. Sophie Russell's spritely Fool lands both humor and pathos, but it's hard to believe her as the "boy" Lear keeps calling her.

Charles Aitken and Tunji Kasim are an intriguing pair of half-brothers as Edgar and Edmund. The way Aitken's Edgar lounges in his father's work chair while casually putting his foot on the desk immediately implies a callow and self-involved young man used to coddling and privilege, one whom Kasim's determined, driven Edmund will easily dominate. When, at the point that Edmund believes to be his triumph, Kasim has him echo the gesture, it speaks volumes about the intensity of the festering anger that has been bottled up in the bastard brother. Aitken is riveting in the scenes in which Edgar is disguised as a nearly naked madman. As their father, the Earl of Gloucester, Geoffrey Freshwater is an unimaginative apparatchik who wrenchingly discovers too late what his reflexive adherence to surfaces has cost him.

The RSC's traveling thrust theater is an appealingly intimate space that set and costume designer Jon Bausor and lighting designer Jon Clark transform into a dark, self-destructive world of clashing generations through the use of two eras in both costume and decor: Lear's world of ancient Britain, all leather, fur, and rough cloth, and his progeny's fastidious world of World War I England (another society going mad). The image of a captured Lear in prim blue pajamas is inspired.

No, the RSC is not offering the high-wire act of an Olivier or a Scofield this time around, but it is presenting a thoroughly compelling rendition of this difficult work, one that I would unreservedly recommend, especially to audiences who are new to the Bard or generally intimidated by his work.

Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Lincoln Center Festival, and Park Avenue Armory, in association with the Ohio State University, as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2011 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., NYC. July 16–Aug. 12. Schedule varies. (212) 721-6500 or www.lincolncenterfestival.org.