“King Lear” at BAM is Shakespeare Chic

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“King Lear” is one of those Shakespeare plays that you have probably seen too many times, right up there with “Macbeth” and “Hamlet.” What makes “King Lear” loveable for performers and audience members alike is its iconic moments: Lear dividing his kingdom, the massive storm, the blinding of Gloucester, the death of the sisters, and the mad king carrying on his dead daughter.

Though the play may have some incredible moments, the main reason it is a staple of many theatrical seasons is its starring role. King Lear is the role of a lifetime, and in this Royal Shakespeare Company production, Anthony Sher gives an iconic performance. He takes in every ounce of power and madness and insecurity and bellows it out, commanding the entire theater. Sher’s stage presence is unprecedented, whether he is on a platform screaming or curled in a ball whispering, he is captivating. The audience is in the palm of his hand the entire show.

What makes Sher so monarchical (pun intended) is perhaps his vocal technique. To play Lear, Sher speaks in such a horrifying guttural that it is impossible to listen to or look at anyone else. It is terrifying and painful and almost disgusting — in short, it is perfect for an aged, privileged, spoiled, senile king.

From the very start of the piece, Lear is set up to be our villain, a certainly unique and fresh take by Gregory Doran, the director. Usually the bastard Edmund is the central villain, destroying his brother Edgar’s life, seducing both Goneril and Regan, and ordering the murder of Cordelia and Lear. The aforementioned Goneril and Regan also usually provide some villainy by being unwelcoming hosts to their father and also gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, with the help of the Duke of Cornwall, or course.

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But in this production, Edmund, Regan, and Goneril all seemed to have legitimate grievances. Edmund, played by the spectacular Paapa Essiedu, endears the audience to his plight as the unfairly rejected brother from the moment he steps on the stage. For once, he is not a villain, just someone with a gripe who wants to advance in the world. Essiedu is definitively the next strongest actor (after Sher), playing Edmund in way that has not been done before.

Similarly, Goneril and Regan, played by Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams, are not the evil daughters you expected in a production of “King Lear.” Instead, they are two adult women dealing with their senile father and his unruly band of one hundred drunken nights he travels with.

Instead of those traditional villains, Mr. Doran has re-centered the production on Lear himself, not as a figure of sympathy, but as a personification of wrath. Here Lear is a raging tyrant, equally demanding and forceful. On the surface, this (re)interpretation of Shakespeare’s text is exciting and bold. However, as the tragedy gears towards a close, the directorial vision falls apart, completely unsupported by the text.

If Edmund isn’t a villain, why does he order the murder of Cordelia? Here he seemingly has no motivation, since he hasn’t shown a single evil streak throughout the production. Why do Goneril and Regan get so violent (their actions include blinding, poisoning, and suicide)? In the final portion of the show they transform from rightfully annoyed daughters into brutal and vicious assassins. Sadly, although Mr. Doran’s direction was fascinating in the first half of the show, his new spin could not be reconciled with the text of the second half, leaving the piece conflicted and unresolved.

Similarly, the design was somewhat disjointed, albeit beautiful. The costumes and set, both designed by Niki Turner, seemed to exist in two different worlds. Everyone wore mostly black, period-inspired clothes, gold jewelry, leather pieces, and fur. Overall it felt very neo-medieval, very Shakespeare meets a “Vogue” photoshoot. On the other hand, the set was made up of brick walls, a single tree, black metal tables, and a massive plexiglass cube which actors stood on top of and inside of.

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To fill the mostly empty and cavernous set was a massive ensemble; the cast of this production totaled a staggering 46. A cast this large for a play (a Shakespeare play at that) is unprecedented, and quite frankly, unnecessary. That being said, the director made several interesting casting choices and used the ensemble in unexpected ways. Most noticeably, the ensemble often acted as homeless people, providing a grounding to the text, helping both the characters and the audience see that Lear’s actions affect other people and that there is a world outside of the castles and palaces.

Racially, the cast of the show was incredibly diverse. In a fascinating choice, the majority of the ensemble (who usually played servants, maids, messengers, soldiers, and homeless wanders) were played by people of color, making a very political statement. Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni) and Edmund (Paapa Essiedu) were played by black actors, adding a level intensity to their roles within their respective families. The racial logic fell apart, however, with the Duke of Cornwall, Regan’s husband (James Clyde), who felt like the only role that had a supposedly “racially-neutral” casting.

Combined, the vaguely historical costumes, futurist set, reevaluation of who the villain is, and racial casting created an odd clash. Although it was aesthetically beautiful — the perfect image of how audiences want to see Shakespeare in 2018 — it seemed to lack coherence.

But this production was not about coherence, it instead chose to embrace the madness of the play and present a “King Lear” that was beautiful, intense, and felt new. It certainly delivers.

Theater Critic and Queer Blogger. Vassar College alum, currently working toward a PhD at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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