Why do we go to "King Lear" - or, for that matter, any play by Shakespeare - when we could stay home and read it, which has the advantage of letting us look up difficult words or phrases in the footnotes?
One reason is to see a great actor, such as Christopher Plummer, tackle the role and learn from his insights.
Another is to hear actors bring out poetry we may not get by reading.
There may also be clues in the visual production that enhance our understanding; The hope, of course, is that a live performance will convey a transcendent quality you can't get in your living room.
Jonathan Miller's production of "King Lear" for Lincoln Center Theater provides virtually none of the above. It is as leaden and earthbound an interpretation of the play as I have ever encountered.
Even Plummer, who was such a notable lago opposite James Earl Jones 20 years ago and an unforgettable Cyrano 30 years ago, proves sadly unilluminating.
The first scene, when Lear divides his kingdom among his daughters, seems artificial - and Lear himself is unusually dotty, as if he were in the early phases of Alzheimer's.
As I watched it, I thought, perhaps the choice makes sense if Lear, undergoing the misfortunes his actions bring on, becomes more realistic on his arduous journey to enlightenment.
That does not happen. If anything, Plummer's Lear becomes only more belligerent and antipathetic as his hardships mount. Few of the characters around him give the play substance. Domini Blyth and Lucy Peack, as Goneril and Regan, seem as caricatured as Cinderella's evil stepsisters.
Nor have I ever seen as unsympathetic a Cordelia as Claire Jullien. In the first scene, she seems hardhearted and priggish, avalid choice. But when she returns to care for her father she seems little softer.
The most appealing character is Benedict Campbell's Kent. Brian Tree is powerful as the evil Oswald, and Geraint Wyn Davies is a properly acerbic Edmund. James Glendick is a capable Gloucester. Brent Carver is often unintelligible as Edgar.
Stephen Russell is good as Goneril's ineffectual husband. Barry MacGregor, as the foolishly costumed Fool (is his hat by Schiaparelli?), has some effective moments.
The production has a few wise visual moments - Miller handles the gory blinding of Gloucester shrewdly, and Clare Mitchell's billowing gray costume for Cordelia in the last act gives her the aura of a Renaissance angel.
But for the most part the language seldom soars, even when Plummer speaks it. The set, an approximation of the Elizabethan stage, is a good idea, but it, too, does little to deepen our perception of the play.
He’s a seemingly strong, sensible man, this haughty monarch of pagan England, full of ideas about how the world should be run.
At least that's the man played by Christopher Plummer in "King Lear," which opened last night at Lincoln Center.
Among the titanic Shakespearean incarnations of this season, Kevin Kline's Falstaff seemed to capture more of the humanity and heartbreak in the Henry plays than Plummer manages to do here.
Plummer is good at the take-charge side of Lear but less convincing as the broken, deranged man he later becomes.
This monarch is involved in a fiendish, implausible fairy tale. He intends to surrender the running of his kingdom to those of his daughters who most vocally express their love.
Sly Goneril (Domini Blythe) and contemptible Regan (Lucy Peacock) fawningly express their love like smooth Jacobean politicians, while the sincere Cordelia (Claire Jullien) refuses to play this political game.
So Lear banishes her and turns over the kingdom to the sisters.
He then begins to experience the realities of powerlessness. His arrogant daughters demand that his retinue be reduced from 100 to 50 to none. Lear, destroyed by this, heads out into the storm.
Parallel to the Lear saga is the Gloucester story, another tale of a foolish parent, this time with sons.
Gloucester (James Blendick) is gulled by the fiendish bastard Edmund (Geraint Wyn Davies) into banishing his legitimate son, Edgar.
Brent Carver gives Edgar force and power as he, disguised as the mad Tom o'Bedlam, guides his blinded father. He meets both wrecked men, Lear and Gloucester, in the last sad chapters of their lives.
Under the plain and simple direction of Jonathan Miller, it all looks like a Jacobean melodrama. The production, which first played at the Stratford Festival of Canada, presents "Lear" as a drama solely of its time: 1605, when it was written.
The set looks like the standard, Elizabethan Globe theater version -two plain levels, no furniture. Lear seems less a king than a busy London businessman, while The Fool (Barry MacGregor) has a feather in his cap, a dirty cloak and a Cockney accent. Goneril is dressed to resemble Queen Elizabeth, with a big ruff, and Regan, like a court lady.
All the attendants stand around the stage inertly - as many as 13 at one point - and gape at their masters and mistresses. It is visually bland and dramatically deadly.
Plummer's decline into madness and then, paradoxically, reason seemed the work of an actor struggling with the material and not comfortable with it.
This "Lear" ultimately strikes one as a mixed bag of underthought-out ideas and underplayed emotions.
The question is posed in arrogance, but it sets off reverberations that humble like an act of God. ''Dost thou know me, fellow?'' thunders Christopher Plummer, who is giving the performance of a lifetime in the title role of ''King Lear'' at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
It is a rhetorical question, the sort of thing a somebody asks a nobody: ''Do you know who I am?'' It comes in an almost throwaway moment in the first act, when a still kingly Lear meets a ragged vagabond. Mr. Plummer speaks with the swagger of a man who believes that anyone who knows anything knows who he is. (New Yorkers, especially maîtres d'hôtel and club doormen, will recognize the tone.)
But no sooner is the sentence uttered than Mr. Plummer's expression flickers with the uncertainty of an icy afterthought. For a second or two, you read the fear beneath the haughty face. What if it turns out that nobody knows who Lear is? And what if nobody includes Lear himself?
The answers come soon enough, and Mr. Plummer makes sure we not only understand but also feel that there is no comfort in them. In the meantime Lear has quickly reassumed his imperial mask. But you can tell that it doesn't quite fit anymore.
Throughout Jonathan Miller's engrossing production of Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy, which opened last night, Mr. Plummer bestrides the boundary between being and nothingness with a brightness sure to stun even longtime admirers of this superb actor. This is an organically complete Lear whose end is glimpsed in his first majestic appearance and whose last, broken moments pulse with fleetingly recovered strength. Bringing a whisper of infirmity to Lear at his most confident and a glow of grandeur to him at his most abject, Mr. Plummer creates a portrait for the ages, drawn in self-consuming fire.
This achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that even the greatest actors, including Laurence Olivier, have stumbled in taking on Lear. Often they come to the role too young to understand it or too old to have the strength for it.
Mr. Plummer was born three-quarters of a century ago, but his actor's energy and resourcefulness have never seemed sharper. And under Mr. Miller's probing direction, he delivers a Lear both deeply personal and universal: a distinctly individual man whose face becomes a mirror for every man's mortality.
Anyone who has watched the ill or elderly resist the tug of annihilation will recognize Mr. Plummer's Lear; anyone who is honest will also perceive himself in it. Having seen Mr. Miller's production when it was first staged in 2002 at the Stratford Festival of Canada, I expected to be less unsettled by Mr. Plummer's performance this time. I was dead wrong.
Though there have been a few significant cast changes -- most notably the introduction of Brent Carver (''Kiss of the Spider Woman,'' ''Parade'') as the virtuous Edgar -- this is essentially the same production I saw a year and a half ago. Ralph Funicello's set is a simulacrum of the tiered, thrust stage of the Festival Theater in Stratford. Now as then, there is scarcely a stick of scenery, with changes of place and mood summoned largely (and expertly) by Robert Thomson's lighting. And the sumptuous costumes, by Clare Mitchell, are firmly of the period in which ''Lear'' was written.
It also remains true that no one else in the show approaches the rarefied heights of Mr. Plummer. This is less of a drawback than you might suspect. If some of the performances lack nuance, none of them fail to push the story forward, surely and lucidly, or to create a solid sense of the unforgiving world through which Lear moves. Mr. Plummer's dispossessed monarch glimmers prismatically in this simple context, the way an intricately cut gem is often shown to best advantage by a plain setting.
Mr. Miller sees to it that the central story of Lear's dispossession and its theme-enriching subplots are told briskly and comprehensibly. Indeed, I've never known a ''Lear'' that moves so quickly or that highlights the play's imagistic motifs so simply and clearly. Though the cast members don't make the mistake of overemphasizing the poetic, certain words start to form patterns in your mind, as of course they should: words like patience and forms of the verb to know and, above all, nothing.
Nothingness is the backdrop against which the worldly domestic and political feuds of ''Lear'' take place. It threatens and eventually devours all but a few of the play's principal characters. And you get the sense that even the survivors are just marking time until darkness comes for them, too.
It's significant that Edgar, who becomes king in the last scene, spends most of the play disguised as a crazy, near-naked beggar, the very essence of what Lear calls ''unaccommodated man.'' And Mr. Carver's self-effacing performance, soft-spoken to the point of occasional inaudibility, suggests that this Edgar might dissolve into the shadows at any moment. His willed invisibility is but a conscious acknowledgment of the nonexistence toward which everyone is moving.
That includes Edgar's father, the Earl of Gloucester (James Blendick), who is deceived and betrayed by his other son, the illegitimate Edmund (Geraint Wyn Davies). Mr. Blendick, an accomplished Stratford veteran, is very good in tracing Gloucester's transition from pompous courtier to ruined, blinded wanderer.
You can feel him shedding mannerisms as the play goes on, until he arrives at the terrible starkness of Gloucester's climactic insights. The same idea is echoed, with less shading, in Benedict Campbell's Earl of Kent, who assumes the guise of a vagabond after being banished by Lear.
Mr. Miller lets the nastier, unredeemable souls go for the melodrama, which offers perhaps necessary relief from the existential horror. Mr. Wyn Davies plays Edmund, a spiritual cousin to Iago, as an almost comic, Restoration-style villain.
As Lear's vicious, father-hating elder daughters, Lucy Peacock (Regan) and especially Domini Blythe (Goneril) present Machiavellian wiles with a knowing zest. (As their pawns of husbands, Ian Deakin and Stephen Russell are first-rate.) The sober-eyed Claire Jullien's Cordelia, Lear's favorite, is a bit of a prig, but then, when isn't she?
How Lear deals with these daughters, and how they deal with him, will no doubt seem painfully pertinent to many middle-aged people with elderly parents (and to elderly people with middle-aged children). Though there is nothing at all contemporary in the staging, its thorned sense of family relations and disintegration seems freshly vibrant in an age when people are more likely to live to the four score and more years of Lear.
From the opening scene, in which Lear disastrously divides his estate between the sycophantic Goneril and Regan while banishing the plain-spoken Cordelia, Mr. Plummer presents a lacerating, double-edged portrait of a man of prodigious will and fading powers. You can feel him clinging obstinately to dignity and majesty, even as they slip from his grasp.
Mr. Plummer and Mr. Miller have cleverly accented the garden-variety aspects of the king's descent into old age. In this version, for example, Lear twice forgets the name of one of Cordelia's suitors in the opening scene. (This is not, for the record, in the text.) He often requires assistance in walking and rising. His hands tremble, as if from palsy. He works his mouth fretfully, as if muttering to invisible companions.
In this version, more than in most, Lear's Fool (Barry MacGregor, in a shrewdly underplayed interpretation) might be an imaginary friend, a conscience summoned by what is best in the king's character. Mr. Miller takes the liberty of having Lear first enter with the Fool at his side. The uncanny rapport is always evident: the Fool gives Lear his grounding in reality, with the servant articulating the master's unspoken and unconscious thoughts.
When the Fool disappears, Lear is truly adrift. He no longer knows who he is. Of course, Regan has said in the first act that while her father's erratic behavior may be ''the infirmity of his age,'' he ''hath ever but slenderly known himself.'' And Mr. Plummer always summons both aspects of the equation. This ancient soul slipping beyond knowledge of himself is clearly an exaggeration as well as an erasing of what was.
There are so many extraordinary moments in Mr. Plummer's Lear that to enumerate them would fill more columns than a newspaper allows. But what is most extraordinary is its continuity of character. This is not a show-off performance, although Mr. Plummer has been known to provide that when the occasion demands it (as in his Tony Award-winning portrayal of John Barrymore in 1997).
The big, famous scenes -- as when Lear rages against the storm -- are done beautifully. But they are not the only aspects you will remember because they are so completely a part of a larger notion of Lear's character. You may even discover, as I did, that the most haunting moments -- the ones you won't be able to shake off later -- are the smaller ones: Lear's hushed, repeated supplications to himself and the gods that he be spared madness; his heartbreaking moment of lucidity when he recognizes his old friend Gloucester; his timid humility when he awakens to the long-lost Cordelia.
The overall vision of this ''Lear'' may be of a godless world. But divinity is definitely in the details of Mr. Plummer's performance.
Of all the greatest Shakespeare, "King Lear" is the challenge most desired by major actors of a certain age. For reasons that are dispiritingly clear at the Lincoln Center Theater, this daunting mountain of tragic poetry and family business is also one of the least-often produced in New York.
The masterwork, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont, arrives in a much-anticipated production with what appear to be impeccable credentials.
It is based almost entirely on a praised 2002 staging at the Stratford Festival in Canada, directed by Jonathan Miller, that famously multidimensional adventurer of theater, opera and medicine. In the vortex of Lear's downward spiral is Christopher Plummer, whose most recent Tony Award in 1997 honored his scenery-gnawing showcase as his thespian soul mate, John Barrymore. The reverberation of Lincoln Center's stunning "Henry IV" this season heightens the sense of occasion.
With such inflammatoty ingredients, we were set up for just about anything to happen on Lear's primal journey through madness to self-discovery. The only thing we did not foresee was the tedium.
Ralph Funicello's set, based on Tanya Moiseiwitsch's design for Stratford, defines both kingdom and heath by the same plain double-decker construction of dark, matte-varnished wood. Miller has updated the story from sack-cloth prehistory to just after Shakespeare's colorful time. But except for the bird's egg-blue dresses of Lear's only good daughter, Cordelia (Claire Jullien), Clare Mitchell's brocaded costumes are as drab as the scenery. The accents are all over the map and, with a few exceptions such as James Blendick as Gloucester, the actors are as bland as the experience.
This brings us to Plummer, who probably couldn't be bland if Shakespeare himself begged him to tone it down. His voice is intentionally gruff, yet lustrous and varied. The old patriarch's eyes are sunken with the burden of power. He was a great king, perhaps, but he's a foolish man, who in effect forces his three daughters to prostitute themselves by bartering declarations of love for land.
This Lear is already enfeebled at his entrance, with courtiers snickering behind his back about his decline. There's a tremor in one hand. His mouth trembles. Wings of crazy white hair tell their own tale of the disorientation behind his still-handsome face. To emphasize the already obvious, Lear keeps forgetting the name of his favorite daughter's suitor, the Duke of Burgundy (Guy Paul).
What kind of ruler was this? If, at his best, he has engendered such disdain, why should we care that he falls? Miller's physiology of old age and dementia may be good science. As theater, however, it diminishes the psychological distance Lear travels. As Kenneth Tynan has observed, "To feel the cold of the heath, we must first feel the warmth of the hearth." There is no warmth or comfort in the kingdom
Lear so disengenuously offers his daughters. Exile doesn't seem much worse than home - even with an obligatory strobe-lit storm.
Miller perks up the proceedings periodically, but in silly ways. Lear's two hypocritical, ungrateful daughters - Domini Blythe as Goneril and Lucy Peacock as Regan - have the cartoon nuances of Cinderella's wicked stepsisters. Their psychological development is mostly signaled by the increasing volume of their wigs.
Brent Carver, a Tony Award-winner for "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and one of several changes from the Stratford cast, makes a sensitive Edgar, the good son of Gloucester in the drama's other story about an aging father with questionable judgment about his children. But does Miller have to have him run around wearing a loincloth after his half-brother, the bastard Edmond, gets him thrown out of the family as a traitor?
Geraint Wyn Davies has an easygoing malevolence as Edmond, though more than his haircut seems jarringly contemporary. He pitches his interior monologue about the sexual availability of both Goneril and Regan as a question to the audience. Should he take one or the other? In depressing evidence of the perils of our audience- participation culture, a theatergoer at Monday's preview actually yelled back, "Both!"
Barry MacGregor makes a pleasantly droll Fool. Cast, for a change, as old Lear's contemporary, the Fool is able to mock him as almost an equal. The blinding of Gloucester also has a visceral realism. By contrast, instead of carrying Cordelia's corpse in magnificent sorrow, this Lear lugs the body in a tarp while someone behind pushes. Lear may no longer feel himself "more sinned against than sinning," but, clearly, redemption does not include heavy lifting.
The challenge posed by the title role in King Lear boils down to a simple paradox: To play the father of all Shakespearean tragic heroes, one must convey the ravages of age and madness with the vitality of a guy in top physical and mental form.
I doubt that any living actor could manage this task more deftly or movingly than Christopher Plummer does in the new Lear (*** out of four) staged by Lincoln Center Theater in association with the Stratford Festival of Canada. It opened Thursday at Broadway's Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
Anyone who knows this stage and screen veteran only from his dashing appearances in films such as The Sound of Music and The Man Who Would Be King would scarcely recognize the disheveled old geezer who appears to crawl out from under a garbage bag someone tossed in the backstage alley. But in the three hours following that entrance, Plummer invests his character with a ravaged elegance and a palpable, desperate struggle for clarity that make his dissolution all the more shattering.
Of course, any successful production of Lear requires more than a powerful leading man. Since the king's tragically misguided interaction with his daughters plays a key role in his undoing, the actresses playing these roles must be similarly potent. Claire Jullien is especially affecting as Cordelia, lending Lear's one true daughter an unaffected radiance that reinforces her noble spirit.
Domini Blythe and Lucy Peacock are, fittingly, cooler and more abrasive as Goneril and Regan, so much so that their performances threaten to become flat and shrill. Both settle into their parts, though, and manage a winning wryness that adds welcome levity.
The rest of the cast, directed with wit and grit by Jonathan Miller, is well up to par. Geraint Wyn Davies is duly duplicitous as the Earl of Gloucester's scheming illegitimate son, Edmund, while Brent Carver and Benedict Campbell are robust and touching as Gloucester's more virtuous son, Edgar, and his ally, the Earl of Kent. James Blendick winningly captures both Gloucester's credulity and his loyalty, and Barry MacGregor makes a piquant fool.
In the end, though, the image from this Lear that will stay with you long after the curtain falls focuses on Plummer and an inanimate prop: the blanket that, we are told, holds Cordelia's lifeless body. You don't have to be a defeated ruler, or a grieving father, to feel the weight of this man's crushing fall.
Shakespeare's "King Lear," so grand in its scope, so dark in its vision, is not a play about a single man. But the new Broadway production tends to make you forget this. Playing the maddened and maddening title character, Christopher Plummer gives a performance of such purity and truth that it lays instant and entire claim to our hearts and minds; there's not much compassion left for anyone else, so powerful is our engagement in Lear's physical and intellectual dissolution amid the harrowing storms of life.
This is not to suggest Plummer's Lear is a self-aggrandizing star turn. On the contrary, Plummer and director Jonathan Miller have taken care to emphasize the ordinary nature of Lear's fears, flaws and foibles, and particularly the physical infirmities he shares with many another old man -- frailties that have nothing to do with the disorienting loss of his regal prerogatives.
Lear enters with an arm on the shoulder of his Fool for support, his hair an unkempt squall of white fuzz. He has trouble remembering the name of one of Cordelia's suitors; at times his hands shake uncontrollably. Here Lear's decision to divide his kingdom seems eminently natural: Clearly, the man is well past retirement age. And his susceptibility to his elder daughters' flattery and his childish rage at Cordelia's reticence are the natural weaknesses of a sentimental codger. Plummer's Lear has passed into a kind of emotional incontinence, a selfishness that expresses itself in tantrums of petty rage.
Accordingly, the protestations of his daughters Goneril (Domini Blythe) and Regan (Lucy Peacock) at the king's large retinue do not seem the entirely malicious insults they often do. In Miller's staging, a good dozen of the king's men line the stage, almost menacingly surrounding Goneril as she complains of his unruly men. Miller's "Lear" does, in fact, put unusual emphasis on the domestic aspects of Shakespeare's tragedy: It becomes a play about the distortions of love and hate that take place in the hot crucible of intimate family life, the peculiar manner in which that most "natural" of loves, between parents and children, can turn into most unnatural hate.
This is a conscious choice. In interviews Miller has heaped scorn on the notion of "Lear" as a "cosmic" play: "People get deluded into the cosmic quality of the play simply because there's a thunderstorm in it." There is certainly nothing cosmic, epic or theatrically bold about Miller's staging. It might even be called willfully ordinary: Instead of a set, the wooden thrust stage of the Festival Theater at Canada's Stratford Festival, where this production was originally staged in 2002, has been meticulously re-created in the Vivian Beaumont -- a curious enterprise. (Maybe a lazy one, too.)
This eminently functional space is left bare throughout the evening, save for the minimum furniture necessary. The costumes by Clare Mitchell are standard-issue Elizabethan garb. Miller even seems to downgrade that storm a bit: It's little more than a few flickers of light and a thunderclap or two.
Among the few liberties taken with staging, the most notable is the decision to have Lear, in the play's last minutes, enter dragging the lifeless body of Cordelia behind him, not cradling it in his arms. Miller seems to be intent on debunking not just the "cosmic" but also the sentimental notions that cling like barnacles to the play: Wouldn't it be unrealistic to expect an aged man who has spent days wandering the wild to have the strength to heave a grown woman into his arms?
Well, maybe so. And maybe it's also true that Cordelia's refusal to proclaim her love for her father in the play's opening moments is a bit of willful persnicketiness, as it is played here by Claire Jullien, and not an example of a pure love unable to express itself in words soiled by others' hypocrisy. But these decisions have a flattening effect on the play's emotional fabric. Miller is so intent on working against pieties or simplicities that he threatens to mute the play's force as an exploration of the opposing powers of darkness and light, of love and hate, of compassion and cruelty.
The depth of Cordelia's love for her father simply fails to register in that crucial opening scene, mitigating, to a degree, the poignancy of their reunion, or the agony of its sequel. And Miller's refusal to represent Goneril and Regan as gorgons of evil provides disorienting moments of levity in the unremitting darkness of the play's final acts -- Peacock's Regan, a woman who, after all, is so bloodthirsty as to exult in the blinding of Gloucester, is mostly a snippy provider of comic relief. (Even her wig is funny.)
But Miller's meticulously rational approach does bring a crucial dividend. His handling of the relationship between Lear and his Fool, touchingly played by Barry MacGregor, is revelatory. This Fool is not a capering entertainer spouting incomprehensible jokes but a clear-eyed commentator on the king's mistakes. Miller's subtle but sharp focus on this relationship makes us aware that the Fool is really the only character in the play (aside from Kent) to see things clearly from start to finish -- and it also underscores the idea that the play is, on a deep level, about the crucial importance of this faculty. (Lear's last words: "Look there! Look there!")
Lear sees Cordelia's reticence as indifference, Goneril and Regan's purring words as love; the duped Gloucester (the fine James Blendick) sees love where there is hate, hate where there is love. Many of the major characters must undergo transforming experiences to fight their way through to true vision. Edgar must disguise himself as a madman (Brent Carver is more impressive as the mad Tom than as the ill-used son). Gloucester, in the grimmest of the play's dark ironies, must lose his sight to truly see -- "I stumbled when I saw," as he says.
And it is only through his own foolishness, his folly -- and subsequently through madness itself -- that Lear learns to see himself and the world clearly, with the lighthearted but clear-sighted affection that the Fool always possessed. (Surely it is not coincidence that the Fool disappears from the play when Lear's sanity is restored and he is reunited with Cordelia. He is no longer needed to lead the way forward; Lear has learned his lesson, has become the Fool.)
The waystations on this journey are illuminated with unforgettable power by Plummer. He is immersed in his character's being -- which is to say his suffering -- from the play's opening moments to its last, painstakingly illuminating the progress of a king discovering what it means to be a man. Even Shakespeare's most challenging language pours forth as a natural expression of Lear's extreme emotional states, not discrete actorly showpieces. The moments of clarity have aching poignancy, the descents into dementia a piteous authenticity.
Shakespeare's grim, great play tests the limits of our tolerance for cruelty, the depths of our capacity for compassion. We are dared, like Lear and through him, to "feel what wretches feel" and "show the heavens more just." On this occasion, thanks to the humble magnificence of Plummer's performance, few in the audience are likely to fail its challenges.