Theater Review: Anthony Sher as a Slow-Burning, Intense King Lear

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From the RSC’s King Lear, at BAM.

In a notable instance of one behemoth assessing another, the director Peter Brook once called King Lear “a mountain whose summit has never been reached, the way up strewn with the shattered bodies of earlier visitors.” Shakespeare’s tragedy — with its vertiginous star turn for an older actor, its twisting politics, its currents of nihilism, and its often shockingly modern, almost expressionist language — has a reputation for impossibility. The critic Kenneth Tynan referred to it as “a labyrinthian citadel, all but impregnable.” It’s a play that drives men to metaphor.

Now a new attempt on the mountain — or the citadel, take your pick —has arrived at BAM from the Royal Shakespeare Company, under the rigorous direction of the RSC’s artistic director, Gregory Doran. His mad king is the 68-year-old Olivier-winning actor Sir Antony Sher, a constant presence in the U.K. if less of an American household name than BAM’s recent Lears, Ian McKellen and Frank Langella. Sher is also Doran’s partner — the couple were among the first to obtain a civil partnership in the U.K. — so the collaboration now onstage at the Harvey Theater is a strikingly intimate one.

It’s also, in a deliberate, slow-burn way, deeply powerful. This may not be the most explosive Lear you’ve ever seen, but it might be the smartest. Doran and Sher are consummate masters of Shakespeare’s text — indeed, the entire company attacks the play’s layered language with such focus and clarity that not only do we maintain our grip on the story’s intricacies, but we’re also often able to hear and process the poetry’s images and echoes in real time. We follow both the language’s thrust and its art, an accomplishment that, in this country at least, is tragically rare. If all productions of Shakespeare resonated this clearly, we might not be so preoccupied with “translating” his plays.

If, despite its technical mastery, this Lear ever falters on its way up the mountain, it’s in its tendency to appeal to our heads more successfully than to our hearts. Doran’s production is both meticulous and majestic, and Sher’s declining monarch is a fiercely precise performance, if not always a heartrending one — I couldn’t always feel their Lear, but I could always see it.

And perhaps, for Doran, seeing clearly is what matters most. The play is rich with imagery of sight and sightlessness, from Lear’s malicious myopia at the story’s beginning to the eventual brutal blinding of his courtier and dramatic foil, Gloucester (the wonderful David Troughton, compelling in both his character’s rashness and his compassion). A brief catch-up: King Lear tells the story of an aging monarch who, in the play’s first scene, publically divests his title and announces his intention to divide his lands and power among his three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. But first he has a question for them: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” (What could possibly go wrong?) Lear’s elder daughters flatter their father, but Cordelia, the youngest, refuses to “heave [her] heart into her mouth.” Her honesty sparks Lear’s reckless anger, setting the stage for her banishment, her sisters’ cruelty to their father, and the king’s spiral into madness. Meanwhile, a subplot involving another aging father, Gloucester, and his two sons — the well-intentioned Edgar and the machiavellian Edmund — interweaves with Lear’s story, creating a vast tapestry of parents and children, political intrigue, existential crises, untimely awakenings, and moral blindness.

“See better, Lear,” growls the loyal, upright Kent at the play’s beginning, as he watches the king viciously attack his own daughter. Antony Byrne is an excellent, hard-nosed Kent, one of the play’s two good-guy-undercover roles (the other is Edgar, and they’re both deceptively challenging). In this production, Byrne’s Kent and Mimi Ndiweni’s straight-backed Cordelia are a matched pair: They both draw gasps from the surrounding courtiers with the blunt disapproval they throw at Lear in the play’s opening. Ndiweni gives a wonderfully tough performance in a part that can easily slip into saintly sweetness — there’s nothing soft about her Cordelia, who reenters the play later on in a shining breastplate, clearly leading the armies of France (whose king she’s married) against her sisters. Even her reunion with her father, who by that point is flitting in and out of sanity, is played low on sentiment. Ndiweni’s Cordelia is more comfortable in her rage against those who’ve wronged him than she is in her sadness at his plight. She fights back her tears with a modern woman’s painful awareness that the world of men regards them as weak, as, in Lear’s words, “women’s weapons.”

Cordelia and Kent might even be the kind of people whose uncompromising natures, under other circumstances, could get a little insufferable. When Regan’s husband, the ruthless Cornwall (a suitably nasty James Clyde), confronts the disguised Kent for insulting his servant, his description holds eerie echoes of a certain current world leader who built a reputation on “saying what he thinks.” “This is some fellow,” sneers Cornwall, “Who, having been praised for bluntness, doth affect / A saucy roughness … / These kind of knaves I know, which in this plainness / Harbour more craft and more corrupter ends …” Cornwall is one of King Lear’s incontestable villains, but it’s to Doran’s credit, and in this instance to Clyde’s, that we can always clearly hear the present resonances and powerful complexities of Shakespeare’s play: Keen insights into human nature aren’t the provenance of “good” characters alone. Indeed, in a corrupt world, the “bad guys” often see better.

Such a bad guy is Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son, who plots in a series of villainous asides to discredit his brother and usurp his father. “I see the business,” Edmund scoffs, sneering at the trust of his unsuspecting family. Paapa Essiedu (who played an award-winning Hamlet for the RSC in 2016) is a delightfully still and sociopathic Edmund. In his soliloquies, he addresses us with bored contempt, tilting his head disgustedly to one side and hardly shifting his body. His Edmund can’t be bothered to move unless he’s putting on a show, lying to his brother or father or the court. In honest solitude, he seems almost dead from the neck down and terrifyingly alive from there on up — a lurking, vengeful singularity, sucking the world into himself to be consumed and destroyed.

This dark magnetism eventually attracts both of Lear’s older daughters, who end up at each other’s throats trying to claim him. The fight over Edmund is only one of the ways Doran’s production brilliantly distinguishes Goneril and Regan, who often feel like carbon copies of one another, twin witches united in their cackling heartlessness from the word go. Not so here. Kelly Williams’ Regan is the more opportunistic, the more truly sadistic of the two (maybe it’s a middle child thing). She’s the second to declare her love for Lear at the play’s beginning and she immediately one-ups her older sister (“I find she names my very deed of love, / Only she comes too short”), and her bid for Edmund is a bid for power. Her husband Cornwall has died and she needs an influential male consort to stay in the game. The electric Nia Gwynne’s Goneril, on the other hand, is a suffering creature of violent passions, driven to savagery, not born to it. Her husband Albany (Clarence Smith, who gets that his character aspires to honor but is still something of a weathervane) is very much alive, but it hardly matters. Her desire for Edmund is an all-consuming hunger, not a power play. She wants him with her entire body.

At least in the play’s first half, Gwynne’s Goneril is one of the revelations of Doran’s production. When Lear makes his grand entrance, he does so as part of a lavish procession, carried atop a tall litter inside a glass box, and his daughters have to stand in front of this monument, facing away from him and out toward us, to make their public professions of love. It’s a cruel performance, forced by the arrogant king upon his children, and Gwynne thrillingly departs from mustache-twirling tradition in her response. Her first line —“Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter”— is halting, frightened, threaded with anger. She does love her father and she’s trying to give him what he wants. She’s also pissed at him. I mean, what the hell, Dad?!

It’s one of those brilliant readings in which a character is split open simply by taking her words at face value. And it’s an interpretation with far-reaching implications: Gwynne’s initially sympathetic, increasingly rageful, and arguably justified (up to a point) Goneril casts a merciless light on the character of her father. It reveals him in all his awfulness, and one of the best things about Sher’s Lear is that he’s unafraid of making the monarch a monster. Never before have I heard the character’s ingrained misogyny ring out as sickeningly as in Sher’s performance. He rains down hideous, sexualized curses on his daughters when they fail to please him. He and his train of boorish knights wreak havoc in Goneril’s home (Doran plays up just how vile they are, as they openly mock her and harass her women servants); and in one horrifying moment that initially looks like a reconciliation between father and daughter, Sher turns an embrace of Gwynne’s Goneril into a violent vise-grip. When she escapes she clutches her bruised ribs, tears and terror in her eyes.

Sher is a slight actor, but he uses his size to great effect. He’s a tyrant who makes hotheaded displays of his power — the power he’s addicted to, that he vainly expects to maintain despite abdicating all the accompanying responsibilities — and in moments like this one with Gwynne his brutality feels like a sneak attack. His Lear isn’t a big man, but he can still hurt you, and he wants you to know it.

Sher makes clear that whatever proud mania has Lear in its grip, it’s a kind of sickness. Watching him, it dawned on me that the character’s true madness isn’t his ultimate confusion — which is in fact a kind of fractured coming to consciousness — but his initial cruelty. Despite Lear’s protestations, Sher never plays him as “a man more sinned against than sinning.” He doesn’t court our sympathy, and so his decline becomes less an exercise in pathos than a moral question posed to the audience: Can we pity a man who doesn’t deserve it? Can we forgive the monster who discovers his own humanity too late?

If these vital questions sometimes engaged my brain without taking my breath away, I put it down mainly to Doran’s taste for clarity over chaos, and to that big glass box. Doran and Niki Turner, who designed both set and costumes, have created a dark, severe world, a svelte, faux-medieval landscape of black and wine-dark red, where Lear’s court is bedecked in gold and furs, and around the edges of the stark, stony space, unknown peasants skulk, faceless in dirty gray rags (these are the “poor naked wretches,” the souls that vain Lear has “ta’en too little care of”). All this works, but then Doran introduces a central scenic element that feels both aesthetically out of place and unnecessarily conceptual. A larger version of the glass box in which Lear makes his first entrance appears twice more during the show, sliding out into the space on an automated track. Lear rides it in during the famous storm scene, along with the Fool (a brooding, unsettling Graham Turner, whose aching portrayal of abandonment by his master came closer than anything else in the play to breaking my heart). Sher has to stand atop the box, at least 8 feet up, roaring his lines as a massive deluge is projected behind him and lighting flashes on all sides. Later, the box houses the de-eyeing of Gloucester, a sequence that feels too American Psycho for the world Doran has built: blood spurting against glass and, suddenly, neon lights inside the box outlining its shape.

It’s one gesture, yes, but it’s a crucial one, and one that ends up undermining some of the play’s most potentially visceral moments with an extraneous layer of theatrical “cool.” Visually, the box belongs in a different production, and physically, it cuts Sher off from his fellow actors at moments in which connection might have proved crucial. Having him elevated and monumental in the first scene makes a kind of sense, but for the character, it’s all downhill from there. Doran’s staging, however, continues to aggrandize the character in ways that Sher’s own canny performance smartly avoids. Jonathan Ruddick’s sound design often furthers this unfortunate effect by giving us an underscore of deep, echoing booms every time Lear raises a hand to heaven to curse one of his daughters. There’s cognitive dissonance here between performance and design. The design says, This man has power; the heavens listen to him. The performance — and the play — says, No, this man is a man — cruel, vain, frightened, small.

In the end, Sher’s most devastating moments as King Lear are the small ones. He’s an actor of immense delicacy and intelligence, and I’ll remember him sitting side by side with the Fool — or later, in a wonderful visual echo, side by side with Gloucester — sharing jokes whose lightness belies their dire consequence, far longer than I’ll remember his “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” Instead of his “Howl, howl, howl, howl, howl,” I’ll remember that every time he said the word “how” throughout the play, I heard him make it ring — an actor’s progress, a calculated preparation of my ears for that final scream. Though that moment, in which Lear enters with the dead Cordelia in his arms, might be the mountain’s frightful peak, Sher is most fascinating to watch in the nooks and crannies along the climb. He and Doran have crafted a thinking Lear, intellectually wide-ranging, necessarily imperfect, but one that undoubtedly helps us see Shakespeare’s Everest better.

Theater Review: Anthony Sher as a Slow-Burning King Lear