King Lear (Cincinnati Shakespeare Company) @ The Otto M. Budig Theater

The world is a binfire, and in Brian Isaac Phillips’s production of King Lear for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the binfire came with a Shakespeare quotation. ‘Hell is empty, and all the devils are here’, graffiti attribution to one ‘WS’, adorned one of the oil drums that stood on the stage, an indictment by an impoverished and dispossessed underclass of the self-absorbed ruling classes who could afford to divvy up a whole country based on televised games of self-congratulatory mutual appreciation. It was the sight of these homeless communities later that prompted Jim Hopkins’s Lear into reflection on these ‘Poor naked wretches’, but his empathy for his own people was far too little, far too late.

The striking political potential of this contemporary set-up was fitfully realized throughout a production that had ideas but was also torn on how to make them mesh with the play. The modern setting initially seemed potent: Lear was an unambiguous Trump figure, a big, lumbering man with a petulant temper and a swagger that brooked no disagreement, and when Matthew Davies’s Kent wanted to find himself employment as ‘Caius’, he knew that a ‘Make Britain Great Again’ placard would get his former master’s attention. This Lear knew the value of reality TV, and had someone filming him live as he organized his daughters and their husbands into a formal display of soft power with himself at the center. His awkwardness at Cordelia (Candice Handy) refusing to play for the camera was clearly visible, and having chosen to live by the camera he also chose to die by it, immediately escalating his dispossession of Cordelia to return attention to himself. Regan (Miranda McGee), sitting in glittery dress at a conference table, was as agog at the twist as any television audience hooked on messy drama; it was the sober Kent who took it upon himself to shoo the cameras away.

The modern setting, though, later began slipping into awkward comedy (Kent’s on-stage texting with a soldier, the two introducing emojis and wrestling with typos and mishearings, unfortunately comes not long after the show Ten Percent did a pitch-perfect parody of exactly this), and by the final scene, which used trumpets to announce the heraldic pronouncements (earlier, ‘trumpets’ had been a car horn beeping for attention to announce Goneril’s arrival) and which had Warren Jackon’s Edmund and Brent Vimtrup’s Edgar dueling while linked by a rope, it felt like the contemporary had been completely abandoned. When the show leaned sincerely into its current analogues, it felt vital; when it seemed to mock itself for doing so, it felt directionless. The interminable opening dance sequence – a movement piece lasting for several minutes which had no stylistic connection to anything else in the production – distilled this neatly, and also introduced confusion by setting up an implicit class distinction between the dispossessed and the wealthy, but also flattening the distinction by dressing rich and poor alike in plague-doctor bird masks, when later it would only be the homeless who were anonymized in this way.

The other odd expectation set up in the opening movement was that the focus would be on a wider society, which came across occasionally, as in the presence of a number of homeless folk on stage just before Lear met Poor Tom, forcing Lear to confront the faceless others of his kingdom (reminiscent of the other recent Hopkins Lear, in fact – Sir Anthony in the BBC film). The production set up Lear as someone with little empathy for others; in an interpolated scene, Oswald (Charles Gidney) interrupted a stand-up routine being delivered by the Fool (Jeremy Dubin), to which Lear responded by thumping Oswald in the stomach. This thuggish display of violence against someone with no power to respond (textually justified by Goneril’s opening words to Oswald) not only cemented the Trump connection but also set a tone for Hopkins’s Lear. He was a simple and brusque man, quick to burn bridges when threatened, and the cruelty with which he treated those beneath him led to a meaningful personal redemption as he invested, first in Poor Tom, then in the blinded Gloucester (Dathan Hooper), and then from that in his reunion with his daughter.

It was a little disappointing, then, that the production also shrunk Lear’s retinue to nothingness. Other than his Fool, Lear only had one soldier who appeared briefly following the hunt and immediately left the stage. This led to some jarring moments (Kent, for instance, having only just ‘met’ Lear as Caius, weirdly becoming the one to tell Lear that he wasn’t being met with the reverence that he was wont to receive), and rather undermined what was at stake in the arguments over how many knights Lear was allowed to have accompany him. The flipside of this was that a Lear who surrounded himself with family and televised his decision-making came across as fundamentally isolated, and as the carefully stage-managed façade collapsed around him, he had no choice but to run mad.

The recurring image of people’s presented identity clashing with their felt responses to the world provided the production’s strongest through-line. This was best exemplified by Dubin’s outstanding Fool. Incongruously wearing a full jester’s outfit, the Fool (as well as Edgar) was visibly present during the initial division of the kingdoms, and then introduced himself properly with a hackneyed and slightly desperate stand-up routine to mark Lear’s retirement, bantering with the crowd and landing some uncomfortably close-to-hom truths (‘Lear’s so old . . . ‘ ‘How old is he?’ ‘He’s so old that his daughters won’t put him in a home, they’ll put him in a grave’). Interestingly, he immediately recognized ‘Caius’ for who he was, and thereafter took great pleasure in putting his coxcomb on the former civil servant who gave out business cards reading ‘KENT’. The Fool’s attempts to jolly along his master, though, gradually became more strained. During the onstage downpour created for the storm (a cool effect, though it led to water continuing to drip down noisily and distractingly for the entire second half), the rain made the Fool’s make-up run. Displaced by Poor Tom (who barked like a dog for his new master), and recognizing Edgar for who he was, a disillusioned Fool wiped the remaining make-up off his face and walked off in the opposite direction to Lear, abandoning both his king and the persona he had played for him.

Kent and Edgar’s adopted identities created more overt conflicts for them. Kent stood out of the opening scene for his solitary rejection of Lear’s actions; in a very static, formal arrangement, Kent was the only one willing to break formation and reach out to Cordelia, and his furious confrontation with Lear offered the kind of boardroom challenge that Lear had clearly never encountered. Switching into glasses, anorak and hat, Davies played up the incongruity of Kent’s age with his chosen alter ego’s hardiness, showing the physical toll of spending a night outside in chains or of picking fights. The disguise seemed to emerge from desperation, the means to an end. It wasn’t that Kent didn’t seem to take some pleasure in his performance of bluntness; but when he was able to reveal himself and return in his own person to his master, cradling him in his death and staying with in the final tableau rather than leaving or rejoining Edgar and Albany (Adam Tran), it was clear that Kent had a powerful need to return to his ‘true’ self. Edgar, on the other hand, disappeared fully into his various roles. His diffident, spoiled Edgar was an easy target for Edmund, and Edgar’s need to wise up and work out how to live in a world where everything wasn’t handed to him on a plate gave him a clear arc. But as he shifted from the topless, muddied Tom into a series of different identities, some of which aligned him more with the masked masses, it became increasingly unclear who Edgar himself was, and Vimtrup leaned into this with a final speech that felt like both a question and an epiphany, as if still learning what it means to experience the weight of the world.

Goneril (Kelly Mengelkoch) and Regan, on the other hand, were perhaps too sure in their own identities. Goneril, in red corduroy power suit, and Regan, in golden evening dress, had clearly worked to establish themselves within the framework of their father’s world, and had learned their selfishness from him. Regan, in particular, showed open disbelief at Cordelia’s rejection of their world, but she herself had no flexibility. She could perform her faux care for her father, using soothing tones and hands to try to calm him down, but was absolutely firm on her own limits. Goneril, on the other hand, felt like she was testing her father – she was angry at his presumption with hitting her servants, and then a smile came across her face as she offered to reward Oswald for defying Lear. Ivanka-like, the two began seeing how far they could extend their own agency, working together to enact the decisive separation, but then – inevitably – finding that each other was taking up too much space. The development of their individual evils (Goneril showed off the poison she’d procured for her sister almost as soon as they reunited for the war; Regan found the gouging of Gloucester’s eye utterly delightful and couldn’t wait to get involved herself) emerged from their being spoiled by their father and becoming exactly the kinds of hard, self-interested, self-possessed players he had trained them to be.

The story which I found hardest to reconcile with all this was that of Edmund and Gloucester. Jackson, a small man, was clearly underestimated by those around him, and he played into this with his ironic jokes and asides. But he also seemed to be genuinely somewhat gauche, responding to Goneril’s seduction of him with naïve surprise and a shared expression of excitement with the audience, before jauntily heading away with a spring in his step. It was unclear quite how competent Edmund was, versus how far he was lucking into his status by simply reacting quickly and well to whatever happened. Gloucester, meanwhile, felt reactive (not helped by spending so much time getting updates on his phone). Hooper did some moving work following Gloucester’s blinding, especially in his sorrow and heartbreak while talking to the mad Lear (the moment where he responded to Lear’s recognition was a highlight), and in his thrill and guilt at Edgar suddenly speaking in his own voice and guiding his father’s hands to his face to trace the profile of his son. But quite who Gloucester was within the world of this court never came into focus.

The breakup and breakdown of a country under the leadership of a narcissistic man more interested in what the camera is recording than in the consequences on the people around him feels on the nose, and CSC probably wisely hedged their best in drawing the parallels too literally. This meant that the production pulled its punches somewhat; if this Lear was Trump, then the pathos of his redemption arc perhaps asked more difficult questions about the purpose of this story at this time. The disappearance of the disenfranchised people with whom the production began also, perhaps, suggested inadvertently how easy it is to notice but then forget about the people most affected by dangerous decisions, especially when the personal drama of the televised leader is more about his own ratings. But this was a thought-provoking and bold King Lear which at least asked the questions about how we might account for the impact of figures like this in an ever-more inequal world, even if it didn’t have the answers.

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