King Lear

Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through September 30.

I need to study King Lear because whenever I see it, I always wonder whether I’m supposed to despise Lear. Is that just a modern or youthful interpretation, to see the play as a warning not to ungrateful children but ungrateful parents? Goneril and (especially) Regan’s treatment of Gloucester is appalling, but their treatment of their father, at least initially, seems reasonable. They’re perfectly within their rights stripping him of his slovenly, rowdy, expensive attendants, and if they do so with unseemly relish, well, given the disrespect with which he’s treated them, I’m not sure I blame them. As unforgiving and vicious as Goneril and Regan can be, that very hard-heartedness marks them as Lear’s true daughters, at least as I usually read the play.

So I’m grateful that Trevor Nunn’s production and Ian McKellen’s masterful performance in the title role managed to complicate and maybe even soften my feelings toward Lear because that makes the play more interesting. Lear becomes more sympathetic if you can see his bullheadness and inability to empathize as—to some extent—symptoms of creeping dementia. Not that Lear was ever a good father to Goneril and Regan or that his treatment of Cordelia was appropriate, but he might have been able to learn and repent—like Gloucester, the other rotten father—if he hadn’t been losing his grip on his sanity.

Nunn’s interpretation of the first big scene, in which the king divides his kingdom, was key. You see the early hints of instability and madness in Lear’s shuffling stance and erratic pronouncements. Perhaps most telling is Cordelia’s initial reaction: she thinks the whole thing is hilarious. She giggles when her sisters prostrate themselves before their father and smiles broadly as she approaches the podium to make her statement, what she clearly sees as the punchline to a shared joke. Her belief that this farce is a game suggests not only that Lear’s rules—his temperament—have shifted significantly but also that Lear and Cordelia have a history of laughing together at his other daughters. It’s an unpleasant picture—Lear playing favorites so gleefully and Daddy’s little girl taunting her sisters from atop the familial pyramid—and it undercuts the martyrdom of Cordelia’s disinheritance. Maybe Cordelia just gets the same awful treatment that Goneril and Regan have received for years.

But McKellen didn’t allow me to stop there, consigning Lear to whatever horrible fate awaited him. He forced me to register not just Lear’s nasty curse of Goneril (who, in this production, begins to cry) but also Lear’s disorientation, the shades of dementia clouding his behavior. Lear’s excessive pride and entitlement become a protective cloak, a futile attempt to reaffirm his slipping identity, and thus his belligerence becomes pitiful rather than contemptible—an admirably unvain interpretation on McKellen’s part. Watching so vigorous an actor make himself fragile and scattered was disorienting but mesmerizing, and yet the truly remarkable thing about McKellen’s Lear was that the shadows of the powerful man he once was could still be glimpsed even as his body and mind crumbled away.

Next to McKellen, the supporting cast was uneven, including a few whose performances would have been unconvincing even without such a daunting comparison onstage. Monica Dolan’s Regan was bizarre, a cross between Tracey Ullman and Christopher Walken, a mess of broad cattiness and oddly broken line readings. Edmund is a weak character anyway, a second-rate Richard III, but Philip Winchester made him even more laughable, as transparent and immature and unmenacing as the designated bad boy on an MTV “reality” soap.

But I adored Frances Barber’s performance as Goneril: proud, brittle, and touchingly vulnerable. Goneril’s first confrontation with Lear fascinated me because the actors played it as a clash between two people who both see themselves as victims. In Goneril’s self-conscious bearing, in the way she sets her jaw, you can see how this woman has accepted her father’s abuse for years and now, for the first time, has the power to resist it. When Lear curses her in the ugliest manner possible, her defenses crack—even without his royal authority, he still has the ability to wound her—but soon she steels herself again, colder and fiercer and grimmer than she was before.

The poignance of the play’s conclusion came not from the supposedly unjust treatment of the fathers, Lear and Gloucester, but rather from their “good” children’s decision to forgive them, however little they deserved it (a provocative inversion of the Christian archetype). I didn’t much care for Ben Meyjes’ portrayal of Edgar masquerading as a beggar (too spastic and over-the-top), but after the “poor Tom” facade fell away, the scenes between Edgar and his blinded father, Gloucester (William Gaunt), were heartbreaking. Meyjes spoke the simple words “Thy life’s a miracle” with such urgent tenderness, gently pulling his father out of despair, that I couldn’t help but tear up.

Romola Garai gave Cordelia a similarly urgent, forthright manner. No delicate, passive princess, her Cordelia is Daddy’s girl to the end, charging out of exile to save her father. Her blunt manner and harsh condemnation of her sisters is interesting because her sisters, too, are blunt and harsh, and in this production, at least, the familial resemblance becomes quite striking.

The end of King Lear still leaves me slightly bewildered, though. To me, the conclusion seems pitiful rather than tragic in the classic sense, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m just too young for Lear, with its themes of aging and parenthood and legacies. My brother once told me that Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” changes dramatically according to the ages of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth: we perceive the characters and their actions differently if the couple is young or middle-aged or old. Maybe Lear changes with the age of the audience. I’ll have to revisit it a couple decades from now and see what I think.