One of the many obstacles to a truly great American classical theater tradition is the way we reflexively default to contemporary naturalism. Actors, often trained to assimilate a role into personal experience, work to relate characters created centuries ago to people like themselves and those they observe around them. But are they really like us? Directors hope immediacy will bridge the gaps between the empires of Elizabeth and Obama, making a play transcend time. But hundreds of years ago, social rules, religious convictions, and speech codes were different. Embracing the strangeness and formality of a venerable play (and its language) might work better than trying to tease out its familiar qualities; by definition the latter approach would seem guaranteed to flatten or obscure the script’s true power.
Daniel Sullivan’s uninspiring production of King Lear, the Public Theater’s final Free Shakespeare in the Park presentation, is a good example of this diminishing effect. Visually there’s plenty to suggest a chapter in human history we can’t relate to: Men wear earth-toned tunics and battle with swords; women are decked out in draping dresses. We stare at a giant, upstage wall with a burlap texture and a medieval look, punctured by what look like hundreds of large needles. (When the lighting changes, this structure evokes a forest of trees.) Rugged, wooden posts and platforms call to mind a rustic, preindustrial society of warriors.
Yet Lear’s daughters, Goneril (Annette Bening) and Regan (Jessica Hecht), are poised, commanding, and utterly contemporary American women in their mannerisms and speech. When they rebuke their father for his friends’ rowdiness, there’s little sense of generational transgression or the shifting of the political power dynamic. Characters strut and pace aimlessly or point and gesture with contemporary verve, even as they speak in iambic pentameter. It’s a problem spread across this production, whose A-list cast rarely delves into the tragedy’s epic dimensions. That sells King Lear short. Shakespeare offers a play about more than domestic discord; it’s also a magnificent reflection on power and its permutations over time, on madness, and on numerous other themes that electrify the verse.
John Lithgow labors in the title role but never quite finds the stature of a disenfranchised monarch — a king betrayed by his own family and then redeemed when it’s too late. The star struggles to shake a self-conscious, slightly goofy quality that inhabits his persona. And because we never see him in truly regal command in early scenes, it’s hard to ignore the disjuncture when he later howls with fury on the rain-soaked heath.
So it’s not Lithgow who supplies us with a glimpse of Shakespeare’s mind-bending cataclysm. Chukwudi Iwuji — first as Gloucester’s wronged son Edgar and (especially) later as the deranged hermit Poor Tom (Edgar’s disguise and alter ego) — steals the thunder. Iwuji delivers an arresting performance, leaping headfirst into grotesque distortion when Edgar “becomes” Poor Tom, guiding the exiled Lear through the countryside. Wild-eyed and writhing on the ground, Iwuji gives us a vision of loyalty as insanity. He bores through to the drama’s inner layers and lets us hear his words as more than just something to recite with contemporary flair. Here’s hoping we see him in another major classical role soon.
In the meantime, we can only wish this production had more of Iwuji’s investment in unhinging his character from realism and wringing out every word.