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May 13th, 2011

King Lear

I've seen a lot of Lears.  There was the one in Stratford-Upon-Avon, when I was 18? 20?--traveling alone in England for the first time, anyway, on buses and trains because I couldn't even drive on the right-hand side of the road yet, staying in B&Bs for 5 pounds a night, living off chippies and pub grub and learning to like warm, dark, bitter beer (which remains the only kind of beer I really like).  I had a ticket in the balcony, not quite at the back, because I remember overhearing the people sitting behind me--Americans, as I recall--who hadn't read Lear before and were absolutely and totally caught up in the drama and the tragedy, actually called out to Glouchester not to trust Edmund, and gasped audibly when his eyes were torn out.  I don't know how they responded to the mad scenes or the final tragic tableau, because by that time, I was so harrowed myself that I might as well have been sitting under a bush on a stormy heath or on a rock near a recent battlefield, as appalled as Edgar at what I was witnessing.

Through the magic of Google, I learn that I must have been 17 (Mama let me gallivant alone through England at 17?  Really?), that the Lear was Eric Porter, that Ben Kingsley played Oswald, and Patrick Stewart was the Earl of Cornwall.  I knew not what I was witnessing, but it marked me for life anyway.

Since then, I've seen leathery Lears, virile Lears, fur-swathed Lears, even totally naked Lears.  I've seen Lears who are actually in their 50's and Alvin Epstein, who was, I think, 83 when I saw him in Boston.  His was a crabby Lear, a homely Lear, a domestic tyrant with a hair-trigger temper who I found it hard to believe had ever ruled a kingdom, even badly.  When Kent said "You have that in your face I would fain call master--Authority," I could only think Kent was as blinded by his own prejudices as Gloucester and Lear themselves.

Which brings me to Derek Jacobi's Lear, which we saw almost the closing night of on Wednesday, stuck behind a pillar in the lovely Harvey Theater at BAM.

I have A Thing about Derek Jacobi, which I won't go into now, because indulging two Things in one post is way too much indulging, and won't leave me room or energy to talk about the play itself.  Suffice it to say that he did not disappoint me here.  His Lear has authority--decayed, to be sure, by age and the increasingly narrow world-view that age often brings.  He also has humor--his exchanges with the Fool (the excellent Ron Cook, who was The Singing Detective a while back on TV) are both heartbreaking and genuinely funny.   His temper is vicious and scattershot--the venom with which he curses Goneril made me almost feel sorry for the woman, especially since Gina McKee, who played her, had a horrible cold that made her voice break when she got carried away.  And in his madness, he is terribly cruel to poor Gloucester.  And yet, he is tender as well, early in the play as well as late, so that we see that the Lear of Act V was always inherent in the blustering old tyrant of Act I, and why Cordelia, his Fool, and Kent love him as they do.

It just occurred to me:   Lear's stated intent in Act I is to cast off the cares of ruling to "unburthen'd crawl towards death."  Which, in the event, is exactly what he does.  Although he did not exactly mean to unburden himself of family, shelter, clothing, and sanity in the process.

Highlights of the production include the storm scene, in which all the sound effects cut out, along with most of the lights, while Lear whispers his invocation to the tempest and the hurricanoes in the echoing silence of his sorrow-riven mind.  The Fool, who is arguably the most pissed-off Fool I've seen and yet also one of the tenderest, holding Lear's hand and supporting his elbow like a nurse, touching him as no other character does, not even Cordelia.  The putting-out of Gloucester's eyes, which is pretty far out on the Grand Guignol scale, but really works to underline just how low the daughters' lack of filial affection and respect have brought them.  And I liked Paul Jessons's Gloucester, too--a kind of shadow-Lear, stripped of his illusions of power and love, driven at last to despair, dying of joy when his wronged son forgives him.   On the down-side, I found Kent dull, Regan whiny, Oswald hysterical, and Edgar not terribly convincing as Poor Tom, or indeed as the Earl of Gloucester's legitimate son and heir.  Edmund wasn't quite convincing either--I always saw an actor acting instead of a man trying to seize hold of his destiny.  But never mind.  It's a difficult role, and there were plenty of other wonderful things to watch.  And the costumes were lovely, if simple--black, fluid, stately without being restrictive:  all but the Fool, whose pink and mustard and cream motley punctuated the action as his words illuminated Lear's moral blindness.

Next up--Suzanne Vega as Carson McCullers.  Yum.


New Essay On Interfictions Zero!

There's a new essay up, about Mosaic Novels, on Interfictions Zero!  J M McDermott makes a mosaic of his own, covering texts as diverse as Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories to Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang to Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje.  It's illustrated by a lovely original sketch by Michael Kaluta.

Go read it and comment.

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