It was 413 years ago when King Lear first brought it’s tragic tale to the stage and it still resonates today. There is nothing so tragic as children betraying their parent. In the case of Lear (Glenda Jackson), you have Goneril (Elizabeth Marvel) and Regan (Aisling O’Sullivan), both power hungry and deceitful. After declaring their love for him they are given half their father’s lands. There is a codicil of having their father divide his time with them, but Goneril and Regan reveal that their declarations of love were fake and that they view Lear as a foolish old man.
His youngest daughter Cordelia (the wonderful Ruth Wilson), keeping it real, refuses to declare her love and is cut off. She marries the King of France (Ian Lassiter), who declares his love for her.
In the meantime Lear’s best friend the Earl of Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell) has the same kind of problem with his two sons. First thier’s the bastard Edmund (a fabulously subtle performance by Pedro Pascal) who is sleeping with both Lear’s daughters and Edgar (Sean Carvajal), the legitimate son who is betrayed by his brother more than once. Again a power struggle and another father who believes in the power of words instead of the truth.
In the end both men lose. Lear his mind, as he sinks into dementia and Gloucester, his eyes. Refusal to see what has been right in front of you, leads to loss of sight, betrayal, rage and madness. In both Jackson’s and Houdyshell’s performances we see it with fresh site, as these are both mother’s and father’s with the gender bending casting.
The show is often hard to follow for numerous reasons. Sam Gold’s direction seems to have 21 different actors in different plays. They have different accents, different modalities of clothing thanks to Ann Roth’s costume design, different styles of acting and at times different languages. It’s almost as if Gold is trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Then there is Miriam Buether’s gaudy gold set and I seriously did not know what time frame this was taking place in. Neither the costumes, the language, the direction or the playbill told me. Then there is the Philip Glass music played with expertise, underscoring the whole show like a film gone off kilter.
Who walks away with this production is Ruth Wilson who goes, from Cordelia, to the fool, to Cordelia. She captures both roles with aplomb. As the fool she takes on a Cockney accent and a Chaplinesq style. When she states: “I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They’ll have me
whipp’d for speaking true; thou’lt have me whipp’d for lying”, you realize just how progressive Lear was. He gave his money and his lands to his daughter’s, not their husbands. The death scene between the King and his daughter is both touching and moving, as the whole show becomes a play instead of a play with music.
Watching a master like Jackson at 82, is a delight, but with so much noise and unnecessary distraction, one wishes they had just done the play as is and left out all the progressive updates. Sometimes simplicity is best.
King Lear: Cort Theatre,138 W 48th St