I recently went to hear the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Court Theater on Broadway. The production is directed by Sam Gold and the cast is led by a fierce company of actors. The role of Lear is being played by Glenda Jackson, a wonderful British 82 year old actress, known for her work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Peter Brooke. Her vocal presence alone, was enough to entice me: a voiceover actress, singer, and a stage-trained actress. I was captivated by her bold choices, though at times hard to digest, due to the density of the text. Nevertheless, I wanted to sit forward, respectful of the feat played out before me — even though the lady sitting behind me asked me to please sit back.
After the three hour show, which includes a 20 minute intermission, my friend and I went to a nearby Chinese restaurant to share our impressions of the production. I decided to unpack a few of them here. Some spoilers though — you have been warned. And please see it if you have not yet already, and let me know your thoughts!
“Thou unnecessary letter!” spoken by the character Cornwall played by actor John Douglas Thomson made me want to jump out of my seat, laugh and clap out of astonishment. This is one of the most ridiculous curses Shakespeare wrote and JDD did it justice. I love listening to trained, seasoned actors like him, because they are playful with the text and have a command of their voices. The next time I curse at someone, let it be in Shakespeare! (Click here for a list of Shakespeare’s curses, including an insult generator from No Sweat Shakespeare.)
This was the first Lear production that I have seen, where I enjoyed the role of Edgar. I always thought the character was portrayed often whiny next to his charming brother, Edmund. But this time, my ears perked open. The actor, Sean Carvajal, created dimension with the text, painting the stage with resonant onomatopoeia and vibrant imagery: “Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for salads, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool…” Ugh the sounds still tug at me. And if you didn’t know I was a nerd for this stuff, now you know. Welcome to my geeky imagination.
Edmund is played by the Prince of Dorn from Game of Thrones, Pedro Pascal. Rrrrrrrr! He is on point. His voice is resonant, and he pulls the text like taffy, phrasing Edmund’s famed texts into innovative truth bullets.
Cordelia, played by the brilliant Ruth Wilson, was also the Fool. It was masterfully done, and it created a dimension in Cordelia that I learned to appreciate as the play progressed. In past productions I have seen, the role of Cordelia, similar to many of Shakespeare’s female characters like Hero from Much Ado About Nothing, and even Miranda in The Tempest, seemed in their purity so frail and helpless. In the age of feminism, I crave more, so much more from Shakespeare’s heroines. With Ruth Wilson’s Cordelia/Fool, we get to see a strong, clever, witty woman, a Cordelia who speaks sans decoration, her deep integrity punctuated as she jest-ly portrays the King’s Fool.
While non traditional casting is like finding buried treasure, I’m thankful that our theater community is also moving towards inclusion. I am in constant search for the diversity of the cast, director, crew or producers, when I am shopping for a ticket and I will continue to do so. I do wish to see more Asian American actors on Broadway in roles that aren’t stereotypically Asian.
The music on stage which was composed by Phillip Glass and played by a chamber of string musicians was superb. Even when it did not work, I did not mind because I’d rather have live instruments on stage than pre-recorded. They add to the dynamic story telling on stage.
The precision of the ensemble actors deserves much praise. From personal experience, I know how hard these actors work: it’s choreography and costume changes and scene changes simultaneously. While the leads are working on their lines and scenework, the ensemble creates relationships out of stage directions or lack thereof. They are meant to disappear yet their presence is felt because without the ensemble, the world of the play would be empty. They often learn the ENTIRE PLAY, not only because they enter and exit throughout the play but because they also are the understudies to all the lead actors.
Come to think of it, I can’t say enough about how much I loved the bold cast and direction of this play. Without giving away too too much, I will say that there is sex on stage, as well as American Sign Language well-incorporated. Signing Shakespeare = Mind Blown. Just see it already!
The play’s last few lines by Edgar:
“The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
10. At blackout, I felt the tug of gravity sink me into my seat in weighted silence.
Shakespeare tells us that saying what people want to hear, in order to manipulate them for personal gain, is an injustice to ourselves and to each other. We degrade ourselves with ‘unnecessary letters’. We lie and society suffers. The tragedy of King Lear is that he wanted to hear elaborate professions of love from his daughters and instead he gets humiliated. His first two daughters give him what he wants, though it becomes clear that they have very little respect and love for him as the play unfolds. The third daughter does not give in. Her love is such that needs no expression, no need to elaborate or prove. What does Lear do? He disowns her. At the end of the play, once Lear realizes his faults, his kingdom and his mind are in ruin.
I love Shakespeare because I love hearing poetry. Words have power. When voiced, words have meaning. Though heightened language is in itself an elaboration, I don’t mind it, as long as it’s true.