The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 25.155 Friday, 28 March 2014
Date: March 28, 2014 at 8:37:47 AM EDT
Subject: ‘King Lear,’ With Michael Pennington
[Editor’s Note: The following review is by Ben Brantley of The New York Times. –Hardy]
Shakespeare Reimagined, Once Quietly, and Once Very Loud
‘King Lear,’ With Michael Pennington, Opens in Brooklyn
By Ben Brantley
“King Lear” has lowered its voice, the better to be heard more clearly. The bluster quotient has been toned down in Arin Arbus’s thoughtful and affecting interpretation of this most daunting of tragedies, which opened on Thursday night at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Oh, don’t worry. Thunder still rumbles, swords still clack noisily, and men still shout in defiance at the unbearable cruelties of the gods. Blood flows copiously enough to unsettle the squeamish, and that long-awaited fifth-act chorus of “howls” is appropriately loud and harrowing.
Yet more than any “Lear” I’ve seen (and nobody knows all the “Lears” I’ve seen), this Theater for a New Audience production gives the impression of talking to — rather than yelling at — its audience. “Come closer,” it seems to say. “Listen carefully. You might just find yourself in what’s being said.” No matter that you and your own kin will never be royals.
For Ms. Arbus is here to remind us just how much “Lear” is a story not only of dynasty but also of families, with all their mixed-up rivalries and affections. Starting with the British actor Michael Pennington’s delicate portrait of a paterfamilias who has never taken the time to know his daughters but now expects the world of them, this “Lear” is less electrifying epic tragedy than absorbing domestic drama.
Some theatergoers may regret the absence of an unconditionally volcanic Lear, who struts and rants his hours upon the stage in ways that force us into awe-struck submission. But after decades of watching high-voltage versions — and this year’s contenders have already included Frank Langella (a power-addicted Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) and Simon Russell Beale (a Stalinesque Lear at the National Theater In London) — I welcomed the chance to get to know the old guy under more relaxed circumstances.
By relaxed, I don’t mean casual or accidental. Ms. Arbus has obviously been conscientious in her reading of this play, and in turning her insights into action. But instead of imposing big conceptual metaphors (“Lear” in Bosnia! “Lear” in a Soviet dictatorship!), she works from the inside out.
The key here lies in the relationships between parents and progeny, and among siblings. Ms. Arbus starts with the everyday to build toward the monumental.
Let’s take the opening scene, in which the old King, who has decided to retire, asks his three daughters to say how much they love him before he rewards them with their inheritance. When Cordelia (Lilly Englert), his youngest and favorite, refuses to lay on the flattery, he snaps and orders her banishment.
As Mr. Pennington plays the moment, you can tell that Lear regrets what he’s said as soon as the words leave his mouth. There’s a softening plea in his glowering eyes that seems to say: “I didn’t mean it. Get me out of this.”
[ . . . ]
The sorry events that follow here seem personally upsetting because you’re so aware that none of this would have happened if Lear had thought before he spoke. Mr. Pennington makes it clear that Lear’s subconscious never stops slapping him in rebuke from that moment on.
His anger also lights a match to the combustible powder of which his family has always been made. This production is unusually strong in suggesting the dysfunctional dynamics that operate among Lear’s daughters. The elder two, Goneril and Regan (Rachel Pickup and Bianca Amato, both superb), seem steeped in a history of sibling squabbles and power games. For once, I believed that they, along with Ms. Englert’s youthfully severe Cordelia, were truly blood-bound.
The same ties of consanguinity are evident in the parallel family of the Earl of Gloucester (a touchingly goatlike Christopher McCann) and his sons, the scheming Edmund (Chandler Williams) and the virtuous Edgar (Jacob Fishel). The brothers have an easygoing rapport when we first meet them, and Edmund’s subsequent perfidy feels more than ever like an act of unspeakable violation.
That’s what this “Lear” is about: how blindly and instinctively we rely on our families, and how shocked and solitary we feel when that trust is betrayed. Mr. Pennington’s King is someone who has assumed unthinkingly that a certain social structure will always be in place for him.
After his elder daughters’ rejection, he seems truly stunned out of his wits, and he always appears to be musing, “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.” Mr. Pennington punctuates the expected blasts of rage with a quieter, introspective insight that is even more devastating. As a man who ran a country for years, he knows the dangers of chaos, and you can sense him trying to find a steady island of calm within his own disordered wits.
[ . . . ]
And for the fabled storm on the heath, we shift between muddled darkness and sudden, startling brightness. In those precious moments of illumination, we are allowed what feel like flashes of complete understanding, the kind that come to us in dreams and vanish by morning. Mostly, we’re left groping in the shadows, trying to make sense of the people we thought we knew best.
[ . . . ]