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FRESH PORTRAYALS OF OLD ‘LEAR’

“Don’t you get tired of seeing the same old plays?” It’s a good question for the dinner-theater reviewer, trying to come up with something fresh to say about “Annie.” But often the questioner really does mean the old plays. Doesn’t “King Lear” get stale after you’ve seen it a dozen times?

No. You, the critic, may want to avoid going stale on “Lear,” and may consequently avoid seeing it when just anybody is doing it. But “Lear” itself remains unwearied, for reasons touched on by several participants at a UCLA conference on the play the other day.

Sponsored by the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, the conference coincided with two visiting productions of “Lear,” one by the Stratford Festival of Canada at the Doolittle Theatre and one by five actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company at Mount St. Mary’s College.

John Hirsch, who had directed the Stratford “Lear” (the five RSC actors had directed themselves), called the play a Mt. Everest that couldn’t be conquered--and that actors would never quit trying to conquer. “You don’t know what the great mystery at the heart of the play is. You do know you won’t get it.”

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It’s true of all great plays. They’re riddles. It’s more or less clear what happens in the story. But, as Hirsch said of “Lear,” the story is just the Trojan Horse. What is hidden in its belly? What forces are speaking through it?

Every generation (as UCLA’s R.A. Foakes pointed out) hears these sub-voices differently. One era reads “Lear” as a parable of forgiveness and redemption. The next era reads it as a bleak existential tract. Every reading makes sense, up to a point. And every reading leaves something out.

So we keep going back to the text. But which text? In “Lear’s” case, Michael Warren of UC Santa Cruz said that we had to stop fuzzing up the Quarto and the Folio versions--that the first clearly saw Shakespeare in a tougher frame of mind than the second.

“Lear” on the stage adds a new layer of problems. The reader is free to visualize a scene fully, partly or not at all--whatever abets the text. But the stage director is stuck with using these particular actors, in these particular costumes, on this particular set. He’s got to make choices. Should Lear have a beard? Should there be real thunder for the storm scene? The misty grandeur of the mind’s-eye production rolls away, and the story descends to the realm of the tangible.

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The critic, like the director, goes to “Lear” knowing that they aren’t going to capture the whole thing. The interest is to see how much they do capture. The critic also can be pretty sure that if the production is even halfway capable, he’ll see new things to admire in the play--lines that have never seemed so apt, undertones that he hadn’t remembered.

If “Lear” is a mystery, each new production supplies two or three new clues to solving it. The critic never does, of course. But after a dozen actual productions, his own mind’s-eye “Lear” is much deeper and specific. He has a clearer sense of the anatomy of the play. He knows its characters better, having seen them played in all sorts of ways.

Paradoxically, he’s less certain that he knows exactly how “Lear” ought to go. If Robert Wilson wants to spin a fantasia on “Lear,” as he did last spring at UCLA, why not see what it looks like, rather than condemning it out of hand? (Interestingly, it was Hirsch, the theater man, who seemed offended by the idea and UCLA’s David Rodes, the academic--and Wilson’s dramaturge--, who defended it.)

The critic has, in short, become a “Lear” collector, all the better to understand the play. One of the curios in my collection is a mid-1960s production by New York’s Roundabout Theater. At that time, the group performed in a low-roofed space under a supermarket. There wasn’t the space to do a broad, mythic “Lear,” so the play became a family drama--almost a TV drama--about a peevish senior citizen and his two bitchy married daughters. You could almost imagine the neighbors gossiping about them on the front stoop.

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It wasn’t the “Lear,” but it was a “Lear.” Compare the scenes in “The Dresser” where Albert Finney emulates the ranting of Donald Wolfit as Lear out on the heath. UCLA’s Dale Silviria said that this had ruined the storm scene permanently for him. But once you got through laughing at the old ham, wasn’t there something titanic about his Lear as well--and isn’t Lear a titan?

Until the two visiting productions, those were the biggest and the smallest Lears in my collection. But Stratford’s Lear, Douglas Campbell, turned out to be as thunder-voiced as Finney, and went on for far longer. And the five-member squad from the RSC did the play on an even smaller scale than the Roundabout had done, sans scenery, light plot and special costumes. The RSC had to cut Albany and Cornwall, and some of the lesser Stratford players read their lines as if they were proofreading them, but both times it was “Lear.” The first interest in the Stratford production was to see that Shakespeare can still be “sung,” a technique that even John Gielgud considers pretentious these days.

But it depends on the occasion. If a warrior-priest is calling for the gods to dry up his daughter’s womb or (better) to curse her with spleenful, thankless children, it makes perfect sense to intone the curse on a rising voice, so that he can be heard in Valhalla. It was obvious that Campbell literally could have sung the role--his baritone voice was rich and in perfect focus, and you could virtually notate his glorious diatribes.

At the same time, he was feeling the role, as a fine opera singer would. Having such a firm control of the musical line, he could act Lear’s wrath and his hurt under it. I found Campbell less interesting after the storm scenes (others were more taken by him when he gentled down), but this was one powerful performance.

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The other interest in the Stratford “Lear” was Nicholas Pennell’s Fool. Deeply aggrieved, and far from young, he was in too much pain to be discreet--Lear would hear what a fool he had been. There was love in it, but things were too dire for love, and this Fool knew it. An alarmingly realistic portrayal of a good man turning into a wraith.

Pippa Guard of the RSC company saw the Fool quite differently, almost as a kind of an urchin mascot. I’ll remember the way she held fast to Lear’s (Julian Glover) leg in the storm scene, with the rain blurring her face. You swore you saw the rain.

Stratford’s Edmund had been much too mild. The RSC team had a sharp-edged one in David Rintoul who, when he took off his shirt, instantly became Edmund’s virtuous brother Edgar. John Burgess also talked out of both sides of his mouth as Gloucester and Kent, with Sheila Allen doubling as Goneril and Cordelia.

Magic? Not always. But, as had happened in previous years with the RSC’s five-player versions of “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It,” it was clear that imaginative actors don’t need anything but themselves and a willing circle of listeners to tell a tale. Moreover, they can tell it quickly. Stratford’s “Lear” took well over three hours to perform. The RSC’s took well under three hours.

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Perhaps Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe had some of that same fleetness. That was another subject discussed at the UCLA conference: the extent to which contemporary stagings of “Lear” get bogged down in spectacle. Or in too many words, as when directors use the “conflated” text, a somewhat contradictory merger of the Folio and the Quarto texts.

UC Santa Barbara’s Homer Swander said that he could buy the new argument that the Folio and the Quarto aren’t to be “conflated,” but that every 20 years or so a new scholar would come up with a new theory on Shakespeare’s texts, which always seemed plausible, until it too was repealed. “I begin to wonder, what are we being sold here?”

“Vitality,” answered Richard Proudfoot, a visiting UCLA scholar from England. Which is why the theater critic doesn’t get sick of seeing the same old plays. You never get to the bottom of them.


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