THEATER REVIEW | 'KING LEAR'
THE question is posed in arrogance, but it sets off reverberations that humble like an act of God. "Dost thou know me, fellow?" thunders Christopher Plummer, who is giving the performance of a lifetime in the title role of "King Lear" at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
It is a rhetorical question, the sort of thing a somebody asks a nobody: "Do you know who I am?" It comes in an almost throwaway moment in the first act, when a still kingly Lear meets a ragged vagabond. Mr. Plummer speaks with the swagger of a man who believes that anyone who knows anything knows who he is. (New Yorkers, especially maîtres d'hôtel and club doormen, will recognize the tone.)
But no sooner is the sentence uttered than Mr. Plummer's expression flickers with the uncertainty of an icy afterthought. For a second or two, you read the fear beneath the haughty face. What if it turns out that nobody knows who Lear is? And what if nobody includes Lear himself?
The answers come soon enough, and Mr. Plummer makes sure we not only understand but also feel that there is no comfort in them. In the meantime Lear has quickly reassumed his imperial mask. But you can tell that it doesn't quite fit anymore.
Throughout Jonathan Miller's engrossing production of Shakespeare's bleakest tragedy, which opened last night, Mr. Plummer bestrides the boundary between being and nothingness with a brightness sure to stun even longtime admirers of this superb actor. This is an organically complete Lear whose end is glimpsed in his first majestic appearance and whose last, broken moments pulse with fleetingly recovered strength. Bringing a whisper of infirmity to Lear at his most confident and a glow of grandeur to him at his most abject, Mr. Plummer creates a portrait for the ages, drawn in self-consuming fire.
This achievement is all the more impressive when you consider that even the greatest actors, including Laurence Olivier, have stumbled in taking on Lear. Often they come to the role too young to understand it or too old to have the strength for it.
Mr. Plummer was born three-quarters of a century ago, but his actor's energy and resourcefulness have never seemed sharper. And under Mr. Miller's probing direction, he delivers a Lear both deeply personal and universal: a distinctly individual man whose face becomes a mirror for every man's mortality.
Anyone who has watched the ill or elderly resist the tug of annihilation will recognize Mr. Plummer's Lear; anyone who is honest will also perceive himself in it. Having seen Mr. Miller's production when it was first staged in 2002 at the Stratford Festival of Canada, I expected to be less unsettled by Mr. Plummer's performance this time. I was dead wrong.
Though there have been a few significant cast changes — most notably the introduction of Brent Carver ("Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Parade") as the virtuous Edgar — this is essentially the same production I saw a year and a half ago. Ralph Funicello's set is a simulacrum of the tiered, thrust stage of the Festival Theater in Stratford. Now as then, there is scarcely a stick of scenery, with changes of place and mood summoned largely (and expertly) by Robert Thomson's lighting. And the sumptuous costumes, by Clare Mitchell, are firmly of the period in which "Lear" was written.
It also remains true that no one else in the show approaches the rarefied heights of Mr. Plummer. This is less of a drawback than you might suspect. If some of the performances lack nuance, none of them fail to push the story forward, surely and lucidly, or to create a solid sense of the unforgiving world through which Lear moves. Mr. Plummer's dispossessed monarch glimmers prismatically in this simple context, the way an intricately cut gem is often shown to best advantage by a plain setting.
Mr. Miller sees to it that the central story of Lear's dispossession and its theme-enriching subplots are told briskly and comprehensibly. Indeed, I've never known a "Lear" that moves so quickly or that highlights the play's imagistic motifs so simply and clearly. Though the cast members don't make the mistake of overemphasizing the poetic, certain words start to form patterns in your mind, as of course they should: words like patience and forms of the verb to know and, above all, nothing.
Nothingness is the backdrop against which the worldly domestic and political feuds of "Lear" take place. It threatens and eventually devours all but a few of the play's principal characters. And you get the sense that even the survivors are just marking time until darkness comes for them, too.
It's significant that Edgar, who becomes king in the last scene, spends most of the play disguised as a crazy, near-naked beggar, the very essence of what Lear calls "unaccommodated man." And Mr. Carver's self-effacing performance, soft-spoken to the point of occasional inaudibility, suggests that this Edgar might dissolve into the shadows at any moment. His willed invisibility is but a conscious acknowledgment of the nonexistence toward which everyone is moving.
That includes Edgar's father, the Earl of Gloucester (James Blendick), who is deceived and betrayed by his other son, the illegitimate Edmund (Geraint Wyn Davies). Mr. Blendick, an accomplished Stratford veteran, is very good in tracing Gloucester's transition from pompous courtier to ruined, blinded wanderer.
You can feel him shedding mannerisms as the play goes on, until he arrives at the terrible starkness of Gloucester's climactic insights. The same idea is echoed, with less shading, in Benedict Campbell's Earl of Kent, who assumes the guise of a vagabond after being banished by Lear.
Mr. Miller lets the nastier, unredeemable souls go for the melodrama, which offers perhaps necessary relief from the existential horror. Mr. Wyn Davies plays Edmund, a spiritual cousin to Iago, as an almost comic, Restoration-style villain.
As Lear's vicious, father-hating elder daughters, Lucy Peacock (Regan) and especially Domini Blythe (Goneril) present Machiavellian wiles with a knowing zest. (As their pawns of husbands, Ian Deakin and Stephen Russell are first-rate.) The sober-eyed Claire Jullien's Cordelia, Lear's favorite, is a bit of a prig, but then, when isn't she?
How Lear deals with these daughters, and how they deal with him, will no doubt seem painfully pertinent to many middle-aged people with elderly parents (and to elderly people with middle-aged children). Though there is nothing at all contemporary in the staging, its thorned sense of family relations and disintegration seems freshly vibrant in an age when people are more likely to live to the four score and more years of Lear.
From the opening scene, in which Lear disastrously divides his estate between the sycophantic Goneril and Regan while banishing the plain-spoken Cordelia, Mr. Plummer presents a lacerating, double-edged portrait of a man of prodigious will and fading powers. You can feel him clinging obstinately to dignity and majesty, even as they slip from his grasp.
Mr. Plummer and Mr. Miller have cleverly accented the garden-variety aspects of the king's descent into old age. In this version, for example, Lear twice forgets the name of one of Cordelia's suitors in the opening scene. (This is not, for the record, in the text.) He often requires assistance in walking and rising. His hands tremble, as if from palsy. He works his mouth fretfully, as if muttering to invisible companions.
In this version, more than in most, Lear's Fool (Barry MacGregor, in a shrewdly underplayed interpretation) might be an imaginary friend, a conscience summoned by what is best in the king's character. Mr. Miller takes the liberty of having Lear first enter with the Fool at his side. The uncanny rapport is always evident: the Fool gives Lear his grounding in reality, with the servant articulating the master's unspoken and unconscious thoughts.
When the Fool disappears, Lear is truly adrift. He no longer knows who he is. Of course, Regan has said in the first act that while her father's erratic behavior may be "the infirmity of his age," he "hath ever but slenderly known himself." And Mr. Plummer always summons both aspects of the equation. This ancient soul slipping beyond knowledge of himself is clearly an exaggeration as well as an erasing of what was.
There are so many extraordinary moments in Mr. Plummer's Lear that to enumerate them would fill more columns than a newspaper allows. But what is most extraordinary is its continuity of character. This is not a show-off performance, although Mr. Plummer has been known to provide that when the occasion demands it (as in his Tony Award-winning portrayal of John Barrymore in 1997).
The big, famous scenes — as when Lear rages against the storm — are done beautifully. But they are not the only aspects you will remember because they are so completely a part of a larger notion of Lear's character. You may even discover, as I did, that the most haunting moments — the ones you won't be able to shake off later — are the smaller ones: Lear's hushed, repeated supplications to himself and the gods that he be spared madness; his heartbreaking moment of lucidity when he recognizes his old friend Gloucester; his timid humility when he awakens to the long-lost Cordelia.
The overall vision of this "Lear" may be of a godless world. But divinity is definitely in the details of Mr. Plummer's performance.