Review : Commonwealth Shakespeare’s King Lear on Boston Common 2015 (Part 2)

[The tale begins here!]

Ok, where was I?  We did Goneril, right?  Regan.  Regan is just the right partner for Goneril. She’s shorter (shorter hair as well, for what that matters) but manages to give off an older sister vibe, like she should be the one in charge. She comes off as smarter, definitely – but it’s Goneril that you want to curb stomp at the end of the night.

What of the husbands? Just right. Albany is appropriately mousey in the beginning while Goneril walks all over him, but then has a change of heart and takes over in the later scenes. Cornwall is … well, he’s insane. Early on he needs to establish that he’s the kind of guy that can rip another man’s eyes out with his bare hands, and that’s exactly what he does in spades. We’re scared of him long before he learns about Gloucester, so not only do you know what’s coming, you totally believe what’s coming.

How was the scene, you ask?  Pretty gross. From our vantage point I unfortunately plainly saw Cornwall reach into his costume for a blood pellet, but man was there a lot of blood. He even whipped his hand back to get a nice spurting effect that you could see from a distance. When Gloucester’s face can be seen again, half his face is covered in blood.

How was Gloucester? I liked him, but it’s not like he drives the play. He was played by Fred Sullivan, the company’s comedy star, so sometime’s it’s tricky to see him in a serious role. He even got the occasional laugh, even after he was blinded, if you can believe that. His exchanges with Tom/Edgar as he’s being led to the cliff are funnier than I realized.  “Wait, didn’t your voice change? It seems like you’re speaking more normally now.”

Edgar.  Much like the Fool, I haven’t always understood half of what Poor Tom says.  But Edgar did a spectacular job of talking to the audience – doesn’t he have a line of some sort that basically says, “If I cry to see what’s become of the king I’m going to ruin my disguise”?  He plays off of Lear wonderfully, especially when he howls to the moon and Lear howls right along with him. I don’t love the final battle with his brother Edmund, but that has more to do with what I’ve always considered relatively poor stage combat by this group.

That leaves Cordelia and Lear, who I can talk about together. The first scene, as I mentioned, isn’t what I expected. Cordelia’s been portrayed as the equal of her sisters, so when she says “Nothing” there doesn’t seem to be much fear in it, like she’s afraid to say it (although her lines indicate that this is what she’s supposed to be thinking). Instead I felt like her response was more, “Nothing. There’s my answer. I know you don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.” She doesn’t like that she has to say it, but she doesn’t hesitate either, if that makes sense.

Which leads to another unfortunate problem.  Cordelia is a relatively big girl.  Not fat, but not a little waif, either.  So for the big climax? Lear can’t carry her. As they enter he’s only got one of her legs, and the other sort of drags along the ground as Lear walks. I don’t really know what they were thinking there. I wonder if it would have worked to just have him dragging her body, like he is literally using the last energy in his body to do it? I don’t know, it just didn’t work. I did not get “This father is trying and failing to carry his daughter,” I got “This actor can’t carry this actress.”

Now, Lear.

How do you explain Lear?  I could do a series of posts entirely on Lear.  I thought he was amazing. I loved him in the storm, I loved him interacting with Poor Tom, I loved his back and forth with the Fool. I think that my favorite scene is the “Why is my man in the stocks?” scene, whichever that is. The way he just has to confront, all at once, that he no longer has any power is … well, amazing. In the early scenes when Lear had to repeat himself you definitely felt like heads were going to roll if somebody didn’t jump (and people did jump). Now he’s got nothing, He wants to speak with his daughter, but she won’t come. He demands to know who put his man in the stocks, and no one will answer him. The way his voice changes during the scene as he asks this question again and again, how he wails in frustration that he cannot get a simple answer to his question, really drove the point home.  Then he has to go back and forth between his daughters with the math problem – “I can only have 50 followers with you? Fine, I’ll go with her so I can have 100…I can’t have 100 with you? I can only have 25? Fine, I’ll go with her and take my 50…what, I can’t have 50 either? I can’t have any?” These are his daughters, and they just destroy him in this scene, all while telling themselves that they haven’t done anything wrong. It’s just spectacular all around.

(Funny story, if a bit non sequitur? My son is 9, my daughter 11. Well, my daughter had a friend over, and they were all playing nicely together. My son gets the idea that maybe they can walk down to the corner store and get a snack.  The girls agree that this is a good idea and they go to ask permission from my wife, who has to explain that while the 11yr olds are old enough to go, my son is too young and cannot (had my older daughter been home to chaperone they all could have gone). So to see him go from the joy of “I suggested something to do and everybody agreed it was a good idea” to “they can go but I am not allowed” just crushed him. The helplessness of the situation was radiating off of him.  I feel like that for Lear in this scene. Once upon a time he was the king, and everything he said was law. Now people are just plain ignoring what he says, and he can’t comprehend what just happened.

For the record, when my oldest daughter returned from camp they did all go down to the store for a snack, so the situation was remedied a bit. Didn’t want people to think this was an entirely sad story. 🙂  Anyway, back to Lear!)

What of his madness? It was hard to pity him because he was having so much fun, honestly. He howls at the moon with poor Tom, he passes out flowers, he makes the soldiers chase him. The characters around him of course watch his descent in horror and have no idea what to do with themselves. After the trial when they finally get him to sleep, only to wake him up and move him, you feel Kent’s helplessness that they can’t even give him that little comfort.

The big ending didn’t move me as much as I’d hoped. I’ve mentioned before that I still can’t really watch Olivier’s version of this scene, especially when he gets to the “Cordelia?  Stay a little…” line. This wasn’t that. When you’ve got a Cordelia that’s basically the same size as you and you struggled to get her on stage, lines like “Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low…” just don’t really work.

One thing seemed different, that I liked. Lear’s actual last words are “Look, her lips, look there, look there” and I’ve always taken that to mean he is staring at her face, watching for signs of life, and convinces himself in the last moment that she still breathes.  That’s not what they did here.  This time Lear is staring straight off in space (they may have even skipped the  “her lips” bit, I can’t remember) so when he delivers the “look there” lines he’s clearly looking at something none of the others can see. Is it Cordelia’s spirit calling to him? I think it must have been. Either way his last thought is a happy one.

So I loved it, did I mention that? One last funny story. As we were leaving, somebody with a video camera asked if we’d be willing to do a quick video testimonial. Sure, why not? They shoved a microphone in my hand and I said something simple about having come for 12 years and this being the best show yet. Then they asked for more, and asked what I liked about it.  What I liked about it? That’s like asking my favorite play, a question I used to refuse to answer. Ask me my favorite child next time. I could not think of a single specific example to give that did not trivialize other bits I equally loved. So what I ended up saying was, “….it’s King Lear, it’s Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It’s perfection on the page and tonight was perfection on the stage.”  I have no idea what happened to that video but if I find it I”ll post it.

Great show, Commonwealth Shakespeare! Happy 20th anniversary! I hope to continue my unbroken streak for many years to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *