At the top of King Lear’s fourth act, disguised Edgar intones, “The worst is not/So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’” His lines echoed what some audience members muttered during intermission at the Public’s current production, as they gathered their coats to flee into the night or reseated themselves, with grim visage, for the play’s second half.
Actually, James Macdonald’s mottled revival of the remorseless tragedy isn’t unusually bad (well, okay, the costumes are, beginning with Regan’s biker princess ball gown). Place it on the list of fractured takes on the classics that the Public Theater often provides, in which periods, fashions, and acting styles combine as though in a leaky cocktail shaker. Sometimes the resulting mixture is potent and startling, sometimes—as in this case—thin and bitter.
Macdonald spent many years as the head of London’s Royal Court, and his Lear seems designed to show the continuity between Jacobean viciousness and the more recent theater of cruelty practiced by the likes of Sarah Kane and Martin Crimp, writers he has championed. (Then again, surveying the muddied hems, the soiled hands, the pile of dead animals stage left, and Gloucester’s blood-smeared face, maybe Macdonald intends the play as a very dirty joke.)
This Lear plays out on a blasted heath, backed by a curtain composed of dangling metal chains that edge ever forward. A forceful metaphor, I’m sure, but these drapes pull focus in every scene, jangling and clanging and catching the light, upstaging every character they crowd behind. As one of those characters is the Fool, played by Bill Irwin in ruff, clown shoes, and a blindingly yellow Pierrot outfit, this is saying a lot.
But of course you attend Lear less for the setting and more for the actors—though that curtain should earn itself a program bio. As Lear, Sam Waterston spends the initial acts straining his voice and slumping his shoulders, seemingly enjoying a petulant second childhood. His performance improves as his vocal chords ease, and he brings a welcome gravitas to the play’s final scene. Much of the supporting cast is weak, though a few of the men—Richard Topol, Frank Wood, Michael Crane—give agreeably lucid performances, and Michael McKean offers a new take on Gloucester, the Duke as aging hippie.
But the most plaudits ought to go to John Douglas Thompson’s Kent. Fully recovered from a somewhat ungrounded Macbeth at Theatre for a New Audience, Thompson—specific, powerful, resonant—should make any spectator newly grateful that Hollywood hasn’t yet absconded with him. Indeed, I heard more than one critic murmuring they’d rather see him as Lear. Still in his 40s, Thompson is at least a decade too young for the role. But in a few years he ought to be enthroned.