King Lear by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Miller. Sets by Ralph Funicello. Costumes by Clare Mitchell. Lighting by Robert Thomson. Music by Berthold Carrière. Sound by Scott Anderson. Cast in alphabetical order: James Blendick, Domini Blythe, Caroline Bootle, William Cain, Benedict Campbell, Brent Carver, Ian Deakin, Jay Edwards, David Furr, Douglas Harmsen, Claire Jullien, Leo Leyden, Matt Loney, Barry MacGregor, Quentin Maré, Christopher McHale, Paul O'Brien, Guy Paul, Lucy Peacock, Christopher Plummer, Andy Prosky, Christopher Randolph, Stephen Russell, Brian Sgambati, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Baylen Thomas, Brian Tree, Susan Wilder, Geraint Wyn Davies.
Those who saw and enjoyed the last Lincoln Center Theater Shakespeare production at the Vivian Beaumont might be a bit puzzled by the current one. A rich, vibrant production like Henry IV giving way to a stolidly traditional production of King Lear? How well can a thoroughly adventurous production be successfully followed by one that desires to break little new ground? Surprisingly well, it seems.
In a way, the productions complement each other, to the benefit and detriment of theatregoers. Audiences get to be exposed to two great Shakespeare works utilizing almost diametrically opposed methods of presentation, but can't help but compare them. And while Lincoln Center Theater certainly deserves kudos for presenting two works as ambitious and difficult as these back to back, Henry IV is probably the one you'll remember longer.
From a technical standpoint, there is very little amiss in Jonathan Miller's handsome but chilly production of King Lear. But there's also almost nothing earth-shattering, nothing that will truly redefine the play if you have a long-standing familiarity with it, or leave you with a long-lasting imprint if you're discovering it for the first time. It's immaculately professional, flawlessly executed, and... that's about all.
When people think of "Shakespeare," this production is exactly what they're envisioning: a massive set (the work of Ralph Funicello, with two levels, doors, a couple of staircases and practically nothing else), elegant costumes (Clare Mitchell), and mostly unobtrusive lights (Robert Thomson) that aren't going to get in the way of the High Drama being presented. Miller and company are providing true back-to-basics theatre here.
That's not to say that, for many productions, a complete fulfillment of those qualities wouldn't be considered high praise. And it's not to say that Miller hasn't done impressive work with this production (starring veteran stage and screen actor Christopher Plummer). Faced with the difficult task of following a mostly monumental mounting of a newly adapted Shakespeare work, Miller acquits himself admirably and brings this lofty tragedy right down to Earth, making it about as intimate as Henry IV was epic.
That makes this King Lear much more of a personal emotional experience, and the play's family-oriented story comes through loud and clear. After all, at its core, the play is about the elderly, somewhat befuddled Lear who wills his kingdom to his two unloving, treacherous daughters (Goneril and Regan, played by Domini Blythe and Lucy Peacock) for their insincerely professed words of love, while disowning Cordelia (Claire Jullien), whose expresses her genuine feelings.
However, in fashioning a Lear that focuses so heavily on these smaller-scale family issues, the play's greater perspective and implications are somewhat left by the wayside; the central family dynamic often plays brilliantly, but little sense comes across of what's really lost. With the greater political elements of the play given relatively short shrift, Lear's ill-considered decisions never really give the impression that the world beyond Lear's field of vision is truly coming apart at the seams.
Many of these political maneuverings generally fall to the secondary characters, like Goneril's husband, the Duke of Albany (Ian Deakin), Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Stephen Russell), or the Lear-loyal Earl of Kent (Benedict Campbell), whom Lear also banishes in a fit of pique. But the actors inhabiting these roles are never charismatic or confident enough to replace what Miller's laser-sharp focus on the central family takes away from them. As a result, many of their scenes tend to drag.
Better is the play's contrasting plot, which involves a play for the power held by the Earl of Gloucester (James Blendick) initiated by his illegitimate son Edmund (Geraint Wyn Davies) against his legitimate son Edgar (Brent Carver). That this element of the play is about a familial situation not far removed thematically from the Lear one is certainly not lost on Miller; many of these scenes find real depth and importance in the material and never feel unrelated to the central story, as can easily happen in this play. Blendick, Davies, and Carver do most of the production's consistently best work; also notable is Barry MacGregor as Lear's trusty and uncommonly wise Fool.
Blythe, Peacock, and Jullien also do well, but are frequently overshadowed by Plummer. A commanding presence in every scene in which he appears, his Lear is capable of evoking pity and anger simultaneously, and his slow transition from an aging but strong man to a weak and broken one is nothing short of masterful. He finds enough varying dramatic colors in each of his lines to whisper pained sentiments while practically shouting and convey the greatest rage in the quietest tones. One can't help but feel something for the man who, in an attempt to keep the peace, bring about all-out war.
Otherwise, feelings are in short supply, but, surprisingly, that turns out to not be too much of an impediment for Miller, Plummer, and the rest of the company. Is this production as solid and competent as one could ask? Absolutely. But while it would be surprising if anyone left this King Lear feeling unimpressed, it would be even more surprising if they left it feeling profoundly moved or touched.