King Lear (Shakespeare Theatre Company) @ The Klein Theatre

Few Lears have ever made an entrance with the panache of Patrick Page in Simon Godwin’s already-lauded Shakespeare Theatre Company production. The doors of the hangar (designed by Daniel Soule) in which his daughters, sons-in-law and attendants waited anxiously slid open. A full-size small plane could be seen through the doors, its running lights throwing Lear into silhouette as he marched through in flight gear and boots, pulling off his gloves, and briskly getting down to business. The entrance applause – partly prompted, presumably, by Page’s celebrity – felt warranted, and set up a production which was efficient, blissfully fast (two hours thirty, with scenes trimmed rather than excised), and interpretively conservative, privileging Page’s Lear as the main event.

Page’s real strength was his voice; when Shirine Babb’s Kent-as-Caius remarked in her feigned Jamaican accent that he had “authority”, the word felt more than usually apt. From the second Page walked onstage and waited for the applause to die away, his deep, gravelly voice resounded with all of the authority of a white man who has never been challenged on anything. Despite the frustrating decision to mike all the actors, somewhat mitigating the effect of his timbre through electronic amplification (the STC, to my taste, often feels over-produced in the technical sense), Page’s Lear’s voice had the unique effect of filling the hangar that constituted the set of the first half, immediately calling everyone else to attention. Lear luxuriated in the sound of his own voice; where everyone else spoke at a brisk clip to get their own piece in, Lear alone was slow, pointed, using his bass notes to speak down at others as if laying down an oral foundation. But as the production went on, the certainty of this voice wavered. He became quicker and higher, lines such as “Reason not the need” and “I gave you all” more human and vulnerable, higher-pitched in their surprise. By the time he was telling Cordelia (Lily Santiago) that they would sing like birds in a cage, he was plaintive, soft, light, while also reaching out with his hands towards his daughter. This transformation didn’t diminish his authority, but rather revealed the human who had become lost under the trappings of power.

These trappings were generically militaristic, in what has become something of a Godwin standard. This was a world of dress uniforms (designed by Emily Rebholz) that broadly evoked military formalwear, with Gloucester (Craig Wallace) a senior commander in Lear’s armies and Edmund (Julian Elijah Martinez) standing beside Lear’s command desk at full attention. Lear himself was in practical rather than ceremonial clothes, characterized by sturdy boots, open waistcoats and outdoor-wear, ideal for hunting. He strode about the stage haughtily, making himself equally at home in public areas like the hangar or in the expensive surroundings of Goneril’s (Rosa Gilmore) home, where his soldiers sat with their feet on the expensive settee. The combination of old-world monarch (evoking British royals) and hi-tech military (with Aaron Rhyne’s video projection conjuring missile targeting and massive explosions in the war scenes) created a disjunct between the domestic and the political, though, in ways that didn’t always communicate the scale of the fallout of Lear’s decision. In some ways, the setting was post-apocalyptic – Lear and his retinue took refuge from the storm in an old downed plane, for instance, and troops stood on the White Cliffs of Dover looking out with binoculars at a clearly defined border – with the modern warfare juxtaposed with a need to put individual bodies into the arena. In this sense, the slow degradation of Lear’s embodied masculine authority felt in keeping with a wider emasculation as the war gave way to impersonal explosions, individuals were forced to scurry for cover, and Goneril and Regan (Stephanie Jean Lane) grew in power. Lear, stripped of the trappings of his authority, became simply a sympathetic old man.

DJ Corey Photography.

The generic setting didn’t allow for any specific political critique (which felt like a missed opportunity, with Brexit sitting right there as a context for a Britain suffering hardships after creating a hard border between it and mainland Europe), and by placing emphasis on Lear’s personal downfall, the production felt surprisingly simplistic in the narratives it created. This was a production with clear goodies and baddies, and while the performances were uniformly good, they felt in service of Lear’s sympathy and redemption rather than digging into the more complex potential. For example, Goneril and Regan were clearly self-interested from the start. They dismissed Cordelia’s plea to them with no small amount of uppityness, and were characterized by impatience from the start, even when the production allowed some sympathy for Goneril as Lear pointed at her stomach to convey sterility. But both sisters became more cartoonishly evil as the production went on. Regan and Cornwall (Yao Dogbe) were uncontrollably hot for one another while Gloucester was being tied up for interrogation, even before they got to Regan’s screaming (first in horror, then ecstatic) reaction to the eye-gouging, and couldn’t keep their hands off one another. Goneril was imagined as dominatrix, forcing Edmund to his feet to kiss her foot while she began unzipping her pants. The alignment of expressions of sexual excitement with general wickedness was indicative of the production’s generally conservative morality (Cordelia and France [Hunter Ringsmith] also kept respectable arms length from one another).

More broadly, the supporting characters around Lear felt like ciphers to support his development. Babb was compelling as Kent, the only character whose gender was swapped from the play, but the role was somewhat watered down in terms of both Kent’s violence (she barely even tripped Todd Scofield’s Oswald) and her individual motives, leaving her somewhat functional. Michael Milligan fared better as the Fool. In jeans, thick plaid shirt, and glasses, he emerged from a laundry basket and performed his jokes well, but again there was no clear individual agency here beyond the function he served for Lear. Lear was clearly affected by and affectionate towards the Fool, who was the beneficiary of almost all of Lear’s gentle impulses. When the Fool began suffering with cold in the rain, Lear initially looked after him. But it was Edgar who was left to find the Fool’s body resting in the shell of the plane, after the Fool quietly died. And Cordelia, initially distinctive in heavy boots and a plain dress during the opening scene, was earnest and tender towards her father when they reunited, but the focus was on Lear’s weighty and poignant reactions to her, without further exploration of who Cordelia was within this hi-tech war environment.

A Lear focused on Lear is no bad thing, of course, and in everyone’s reactions to Lear, the production traced the effects on a larger society of the downfall of the strongman figure around whom that society has organised itself. Even when Lear was beginning to rave, shouting about the ingratitude of his daughters, the company largely stood still, listening to him, giving him space to shout, even if he increasingly found himself upstage and less prominent within the frame (the lack of a movement director in the credits was interesting, given the relatively static organisation of actors). Later, those who had hitched their wagons to Lear seemed bereft as a result of his instability. Wallace’s Gloucester was key in this respect, reaching out blindly towards a mad king who was as confident as ever in his madness, even if what he was saying no longer made clear sense. Kent, Cordelia, and the rest similarly seemed unsure what to do or say around Lear in his more vulnerable state, which prompted him in turn to reach out from his madness and offer what comfort he could, often in the form of physical touch or softer words, with a sudden focus. That ability to reassure, though, was lost entirely with the death of Cordelia. Backlit by floods, Lear staggered onto the stage howling wordlessly, and no longer had any empathy for anyone else. In his dying moments, he knelt upright, not looking at Cordelia but at a point in the middle distance as he seemed to see her moving, before falling back into Kent’s arms. Everyone else was left standing, wordless, powerless, watching Lear’s death.

The only plotline which did manage to develop its own identity independent of Lear was that of Edgar and Edmund. Edgar, in tank-top and blazer, was the polar opposite of the military Edmund, a bookish and indecisive man, while Edmund moved confidently and leaned towards the audience to confide in them. Edgar’s apparently unphysical life was somewhat belied by the fact that, when Matthew J. Harris took off his shirt to begin dabbing dirt over his body, he was ripped. As Edgar developed his more physical side, he also became the vector for the production’s own questions about its reality. When Lear appeared from nowhere to talk to the blind Gloucester, it was Edgar who looked around in confusion for whoever was meant to be looking after the old man; Edgar also slapped his hands in frustration every time Lear referenced Gloucester’s eyesight, and threw up his arms in despair at Lear’s odd questions during the storm. Poor Tom was a disguise he wore very lightly, and by the time he was paired with his father – the closing image of the first half was of Edgar leading Gloucester away – he seemed to have integrated his physical and empathetic selves into what now passed as the “true Edgar”. This earnest truth-seeker contrasted with Edmund’s increasingly complex interweavings of lust and treachery, and built up to an intricate one-on-one brawl (choreographed by Robb Hunter) which ended with a stab to Edmund’s side, almost in self-defence.

The lavish production values were the clear star here, though led to lengthy set changes and some over-determined storytelling (every location was given a clear scene setting caption above the stage, seemingly out of a lack of confidence that its audiences would be able to read the set correctly). The emphasis on costumes, furniture, beautiful objects, located these characters in a world of things to which they were often beholding: Edmund pointed out the horoscope in the tabloid newspaper that Gloucester was reading, Albany (Jake Loewenthal) and Goneril tussled on their expensive sofa, separating in embarrassment when interrupted by their servants. The worlds that the characters inhabited were comfortable but small, and as the production went on, the staging opened up more, Lear in particular often occupying empty spaces that seemed to separate him from the crassly material.

This production found its profundity in one man’s experience of loss: loss of stability, loss of surety, loss of home, loss of sense of self, and ultimately the loss of a loved one. And from that man’s experience followed the shaking of everyone else’s understanding of how the world is organised, as Page’s thunderous voice was gradually displaced, softened, and ultimately silenced. The opportunity to explore what the implications of this might be – what does it mean for society to be so dependent on such a deep-rooted idea of authority – was not taken up, but the production certainly conveyed its sense of the epochal scale of such destabilisation.

Images by DJ Corey photography, courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.

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