Among the audiences that sit reverentially through Lincoln Center Theater’s newly imported Stratford Festival production of King Lear, there are probably at least a few of the halfhearted Shakespeareans who streamed toward the exits at BAM last fall during Richard Maxwell’s non-staging of Henry IV, Part One. Reassured by the glossier credentials on display at the Beaumont, they probably haven’t been struck by the thought that Maxwell’s approach—something for which, I grant, he and his actors were painfully unequipped—has now been validated by Jonathan Miller’s staging of Lear. Miller, it appears, is onto the same thing: the removal of directorial “interpretation” as a criterion of value for Shakespeare production. A super-intelligent director with far more experience than Maxwell, Miller has of course gotten substantially better results. But the approach they share is the interesting point.
Maxwell’s actors simply stood and said the lines. So, for the most part, do Miller’s—only, they know how to stand, and, more important, how to speak. This is not in itself a guarantee of great performances: There were capable artists in Maxwell’s cast, and the acting in King Lear is woefully uneven in quality. But the play is played for itself, and not for Miller’s or anyone else’s crackbrained notion of it. As a result, at the Beaumont you can actually see King Lear: not a concept, not an update, not a renovation, not a deconstruction; just a very great play by Shakespeare. What an experiment.
And what a relief. King Lear is one of the few plays we have to live with permanently, like it or not. I’ve been seeing Lears, great and average and dismissible, all my theatergoing life. But I have rarely seen a production at which I could contemplate, in lucid completeness, what happens in King Lear. With all that directorial distraction stripped away, the movement of the story becomes the dominating element onstage. We are back at first principles, and with a play as great as King Lear, that turns out to be a very good place. Make no mistake: This Lear is not a highly flavorsome brew, but after years of lousy mixed drinks and eccentrically spiced wines, what’s more refreshing than a glass of pure spring water?
Ralph Funicello’s set is a bare replica of an Elizabethan stage, onto which little furniture and no decoration is brought. There are thunderclaps and fanfares, but no other music; Barry MacGregor’s Fool, a doggedly devoted but wiseass Cockney, gabbles his songs as long-familiar patter routines. Clare Mitchell’s costumes are standardized and sparing of color, with the gentlemen all in identical black; this Lear rules a Puritan court, which more than once evokes the Cromwellian grimness of today’s Christian right. Movement too is sparse: Miller shuns all fancy blocking or stage business; often the initial positions of a scene are held until motion becomes mandatory or is specified in the text.
The effect is to make the play at once solemn and swift. Miller’s tableaux supply a grandeur that’s right for Lear, minus the grandiosity that would weigh it down. He seems to have taken pains to deflate all pomp in the acting as well; even Christopher Plummer’s Lear, at his peaks of fury, roars a human roar instead of an old-style Shakespearean rant. Not that there’s any new-style muttering or colloquializing of speech: Overall the acting is grave, fluent, forthright, and—important note—unafraid of humor. “Tragedy is extraordinarily dependent on comedy,” Eric Bentley once mused; Plummer’s hotheaded, crusty Lear is a man increasingly aware of the irony of his own plight, willing to joke about it till the joke, with Cordelia’s death, turns tragic.
Human beings act on impulse, not reason. This is the source of Lear’s tragedy. Not only dangerous in itself, impulse can be manipulated by the corrupt, who tend to put their schemes ahead of their emotions. Lear is a man who “but slenderly hath known himself;” it is the crueler of his two wicked daughters who observes this. The wicked being capable of boundless deceit, as the Bush presidency has lately been demonstrating, the good, like the homeless whom Lear has failed to aid, have few places to shelter themselves. They aren’t even safe in prison: A corrupt guard may come along whose definition of “man’s work” extends to making the murder of women and old men look like suicide. The play’s roots lie in fairy tale (compare “Cinderella”), but its provenance is chiefly political psychology. The ex-king who blames the gods for treating us “as flies to wanton boys” still has more to learn about himself.
The impassive, almost Pinterish, tone Miller achieves makes these complexities far more visible than usual. His ingenious choice has, regrettably, a flawed side: Actors of less depth or less striking presence, striving for impassivity, instead produce one-dimensionality. Like a defective videotape, the performance surrounding Plummer tends to shift erratically between full color and fuzzy gray. The virtuous have the worst luck here; even a gifted actor like Brent Carver, striking in his Poor Tom guise, almost disappears vocally when he speaks as earnest Edgar. But the shortfall is made up by the gain in dramatic clarity. At the end, I, who have rarely been moved by Plummer’s customary fireworks, wept for his Lear. I credit him and Miller, who have caught the weight of our own sad time.
“The Taming of the Bard: What’s the Trick of Staging Shakespeare? Directors Spill Their Trade Secrets.” By Charles McNulty