By Barbara Murray
I finally saw King Lear for the first time. Going to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the final performance of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) New York run was a gift from above. Not only had I never seen the tragedy performed, I had never even read it. (But you can here.) I knew the story, about an old man who rages a lot and disowns his favorite daughter, yet somehow it was never required for any of my classes.
It’s an understatement to say the part of Lear is considered a challenge for actors. Antony Sher, 68, who plays the RSC production’s 80-year-old widowed king, told a reviewer he compares the role to climbing Mount Everest. In the BAMbill, Sir Antony has easily eight column inches of stage, television, film and writing credits, awards including a Critics’ Circle for Best Shakespeare Performance, a Drama Desk and Outer Critics’ Circle one too. He paints, he draws, and he writes books, including two novels. In 2000, he was knighted for his service to Acting and Writing. He is said to be retiring from acting.
In the play, there’s a parallel story to Lear of another aging man versus his two sons. Lear’s daughters have conflicts with each other, as do the sons of Lear’s friend, the Duke of Gloucester – one legitimate and one illegitimate. It’s a large cast, and they’re all fabulous. The two sons of Gloucester stand out: We meet the illegitimate son, Edmund (Paapa Essiedu), first as he plots to steal his brother’s land. The “legal” son is Edgar, played by Oliver Johnstone. Gloucester’s (David Troughton) role is demanding, as he is blinded as punishment after being framed for treason. It’s an extremely gory scene, with blood spurting out of his eyes. He is led around after that, his eyes covered by rags.
The RSC is the gold standard. For one thing, the storm that is at the heart of the play was the most realistic thing I’ve ever seen onstage. Rain pouring down at the back of the stage, thunder and lightning that made me jump. This production was directed by Gregory Doran, who in real life is Sher’s partner.
When I walked in a few minutes late, I could hear the actors speaking lines from the first scene, so I knew the king and his daughters had not yet appeared. I hurried up the stairs as fast as my bad knee would allow, and found my seat on the aisle, took out my notebook and was searching for my pen. Then the woman in front of me turned around and told me I was making too much noise. So, I sat there with a blank notebook on my lap, just watching.
Then my salvation. The woman next to me offered me her pen. I smiled and whispered my thanks. She thought I was a teacher, I found out during the intermission. And she was the mother of one of the actors! She had flown in from London a day or two before. I asked her which actor; she didn’t want to tell me because I was writing about it. But I figured it out when Edgar, the legitimate son of Gloucester, disguised as a mad beggar, was onstage. This woman, who looked like a model, leaned forward and it was obvious he was the one she had crossed the pond to see.
I whispered, “It’s him, right?” and she said yes. “OMG, he’s terrific,” I said.
And he was. They all were. My new friend told me they were exhausted from the month-long run, especially after performing the three-hour-plus play twice the day before. You absolutely couldn’t tell. Everybody looked fresh and energetic, and sounded great.
The lady from London expressed surprise that the American audience could follow the British accents and the 400-year-old language. She could tell by the laughter that greeted some of the wordplay, especially the bawdy parts. Scholars think Shakespeare wrote King Lear circa 1605, after finding a story of “the legendary King Leir” who lived in 845 B.C., many years before the founding of Rome, according to the Folger Shakespeare Library copy of King Lear that I read.
Trying to put a year to the setting is a little hard. The costumes look medieval, having been compared by one reviewer to the show Game of Thrones. In the first glimpse of Lear on his very high throne, he’s majestic but weird. He wears a long outfit that appeared to be made of feathers, or fur, studded with gold medallions, and a large gold crown on his head. “Every inch a king,” he’s carried in and out by bearers. By the end of the play, he is homeless.
The tragic family saga starts with Lear’s daughters having to tell him how much they love him. The eldest, Goneril (Nia Gwynne), goes first. She and the others face Lear when they begin to speak but each turns around to face the audience. We see them as Lear must see them. Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni), wearing a plain white gown, tells herself to “love, and be silent.” The king likes what Goneril says, so that he gives her a third of his kingdom. Then it’s Regan’s turn. She (Kelly Williams) says she loves her dad more than Goneril does. Poor Cordelia knows she can’t compete with them, although she loves Lear in a more pure and realistic way. Lear asks her what she can say to draw a third of the kingdom “more opulent than your sisters.”
“Nothing,” says Cordelia. Lear can’t believe his ears. “Nothing?” he says. “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” Cordelia says she loves him “according to my bond, no more nor less.” It does sound a bit cold.
Lear gives her another chance. “How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little, lest you may mar your fortunes.”
She tells him she loves him, he who begot her, bred her, loved her. “I return those duties back as are right fit: Obey you, love you, and most honor you. Why have my sisters husbands if they say they love you all?”
This was the problem. Both the older ones pledged 100 percent of their love to their father, although they were married. Cordelia has two suitors, and she realizes that when she marries, her husband will get half her love; the rest belongs to her father.
Lear is upset he’s not getting it all. “But goes thy heart with this? So young and so untender?”
“So young, my lord, and true,” she answers.
That’s it for Cordelia. Lear disowns her and gives her share of the kingdom to the other sisters. He had been planning to live with Cordelia in his old age, but now he tells Goneril and Regan he will take turns living with them one month at a time. Not only him, but 100 of his knights too.
The actors and the audience grimace with the daughters, who suddenly have to prove what they said to appease their father. Imagine being one of their husbands, having to host the grouchy old Lear plus his rowdy soldiers.
Lear’s friend Kent (Antony Byrne) has been trying to reason with Lear over his treatment of Cordelia, but Lear won’t listen. Lear calls him a miscreant and banishes him, too. (Lear, persuaded by flattery and resistant to truth, reminds me of Donald Trump. Some of his angry speeches could be Trumpian tweets.)
A flourish of trumpets, and in comes Gloucester with the king of France and Duke of Burgundy, both suitors to Cordelia. Cordelia, now without a dowry, is rejected by Burgundy. Luckily, or not, the French king takes her anyway. Both suitors are dressed in long robes flecked with gold. Gorgeous!
When I was a child, my grandparents had a large picture of this scene, called Cordelia’s Farewell, hanging in the living room. In the center was a young woman in a white dress with her hair in a long braid, looking back over her shoulder at another woman in red, who is curtseying. It hung there until some time after my parents moved to that house. I was busy with my own family and didn’t pay attention to what happened to it. When I was little, the picture scared me. It was so dark, and the dog in the scene looked so sad, his head and tail down. I asked my grandmother about it and she told me the king had banished his daughter. You could say I knew about Lear, however vaguely, since the age of 4 or 5.
Also, I have two sisters. I am the oldest. After my mother died, my father was the executor of her will, until he had a disabling stroke; went mad, you might say. There are some parallels. Not only to me, but to everyone in that audience, or any audience that sees the play. Fear of aging is universal.
I wish you could all see this performance. If you can travel to England, the iconic Antony Sher and the cast will be performing King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon, May 23 – June 9.
Or, next best thing: do see the Royal Shakespeare Company any time you possibly can.
Based in New York City, Barbara Murray has been a writer and editor for publications including Newsday, Conde Nast’s Supermarket News, Jersey Journal, Long Island Business Review, and the Queens TimesLedger, among others.