There are Shakespeare tragedies. And then there’s King Lear.
This mammoth tale of betrayal and human folly is running at the Public Theater in Greenwich Village, New York right now in a James Lapine production, and you better believe I ran out to get tickets the minute I heard Kevin Kline would be playing the lead. I love King Lear, though I’m not always sure why.
It’s a difficult play. Unlike Hamlet, which presents a clear howl of existential rage, King Lear lurches, cries and mumbles through a ragged plot, a woolly tapestry of pre-medieval succession struggles that doesn’t really make sense (there was a true King Leir, though this play mangles his story). This is Shakespeare at his least articulate, but that’s not always a bad thing, since you can have a great time discerning (or inventing) metaphysical meanings for many aspects of this play.
The plot follows two separate narrative threads, both involving elderly parents with good and bad kids. I’ll try to briefly summarize the two plots here.
First, there’s King Lear and his three daughters. The play opens at a royal banquet where the elderly Lear is planning to divide his kingdom equally between the three. Kline plays the King as a proud and impulsive wounded animal, smarter than he is wise, and a heavy drinker. At the banquet, Lear suddenly banishes Cordelia for speaking truthfully to him while Regan and Goneril flatter him with bad poetry. He casts her away, along with another of his trusted advisers, and divides his kingdom between Regan and Goneril, who proceed to scheme against him and each other until nearly everybody is dead. Towards the end (and before the part where everybody gets dead), Lear has a brief reunion with Cordelia, the one child who has truly loved him all along.
The story of Lear and his daughters could have been a play in itself. But then there’s the Duke of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar (who is noble but gullible) and Edmund (an evil semi-outcast bastard, literally). Edmund fabricates evidence that Edgar is hiding weapons of mass destruction, and Gloucester completely falls for the ploy and attempts to arrest Edgar, who escapes, leaves town and covers himself with dirt to impersonate a madman. Gloucester later joins King Lear in the battle against Regan and Goneril and is caught and blinded (on stage, with much fake blood) by his enemies. A war ensues between Edgar (the good guy) and Edmund (the bad guy). Edgar and Cordelia join forces near the white cliffs of Dover, and they triumph over evil in the end, though by this time virtually everybody but Edgar is dead.
Two remarkable long tableaus form the dramatic core of this play, and I was very curious to see how director James Lapine would handle these key scenes. The first is the storm at the end of Act One, after the ungrateful daughters Regan and Goneril cast King Lear out of their castle along with a local “fool” and a couple of village ruffians who have joined Lear’s entourage. The vision of the raging King, the sanguine fool and the helpless clowns splayed out on a stage floor as thunder blasts and fake-rain curtains shake should wash over the audience like a glorious hurricane of metaphors, and that’s what I came to the Public Theater to see. I’m happy to report that Kevin Kline and his fellow performers handle the famous storm scene beautifully, and watching it is certainly the greatest pleasure of the night for me.
In this play’s other flagship scene, young honest-son Edgar has found the Duke of Gloucester wandering in agony, having recently had both eyes gouged out with a knife. Gloucester wants to kill himself, so Edgar tricks his father by taking him to the Dover cliffs and walking him out to the edge. Edgar allows Gloucester to “kill himself” by leaping over the cliff, but Edgar has not actually taken him to the edge, so Gloucester simply falls on his face and passes out. Edgar then pretends to his awakened father that he has miraculously survived a fall. In Larry Bryggman’s and Brian Avers’s quiet hands, this father-son scene is a marvel of tenderness and forgiveness.
Kristen Bush is likable as the too-smart for-her-own good Cordelia, and Logan Marshall-Green stands out as a slacker Edmund the Bastard. But a production of King Lear will live or die by its most symbolic character, the fool, and scrawny Philip Goodwin is a standout in this role. Like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this character has no will or motivation of his own except the will to always tell his King the truth. He speaks mainly in bawdy songs and riddles, and I’d be lying to you if I said I understood half of the jokes Shakespeare wrote for this great character. But the fool’s comic sensibility neatly balances the portentous heaviness of the play’s main plot, and provides several of the best moments. Maybe the reason King Lear is a better play than Macbeth or Othello is that King Lear has a fool and Macbeth and Othello don’t.
Find a ticket to this show if you can. It won’t be easy (it’s near sold out), and it won’t be cheap. But it’s a fabulous night of theatre, and a hell of a lot better than that most of that Disney crap they’re running up on Times Square.