King Lear: My quest to build the perfect production of Shakespeare's harrowing play.

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May 24 2011 6:56 AM

The King and I

My quest to build the perfect production of King Lear.

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Those Unnatural Hags: Peter Brook's film version, 1971
Goneril and Regan may present the play's messiest challenge. One minute they're simply trying to placate a difficult parent in decline—and one who favors their holier-than-thou little sister to boot—and the next they've whipped themselves into a maelstrom of homicidal-suicidal lust for tricky Edmund, son of the unfortunate Gloucester, who loses his eyes for siding with the king against his eldest daughters. For G'n'R to gain coherence, and perhaps even sympathy, the adaptor must take liberties. Jane Smiley relocated the action to a farm in late-20th-century Iowa in her 1991 novel, A Thousand Acres, an astute reading of Lear that interpreted the king as a nasty old drunk and his daughters as the victims of sexual abuse.

Though a straight adaptation, Peter Brook's minimalist, Beckett-influenced movie version (available on Netflix Instant) does intimate that Paul Scofield's Lear is a scary monster: a growling monolith, powerful in his very immobility. One doesn't pity him so much as pity a world in which he exists—and pity his daughters for their ill fortune. The Brook film also whittles down the text, which brings G'n'R into sharper relief and minimizes the Cordelia effect. (When she tells Dad, "I cannot heave my heart into my mouth," the movie takes her at her word and cuts her righteous speech off at the knees shortly thereafter.) Lear and his drunken minions sack Goneril's castle until her great room resembles a Bowery SRO, and the king's verbal pummeling of his first-born ("Thou art a boil,/ A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle/ In my corrupted blood") has the vicious intimacy of a sexual assault. Goneril is warped, a hostage to her father's terrorism. And Regan has the air of a captive, too—she appears perpetually dazed and post-coital, often little more than a bystander. If this Regan were a Manson girl, she'd be Leslie van Houten.

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The End: Donmar Warehouse at BAM, 2011
Arguably, the less sympathetic Lear is, the less affecting the last scene, when the broken king weeps over Cordelia's corpse. Jacobi's Lear is overweening, impulsive, self-justifying, but he stirs no primal fear; he may have the id of an infant and the ego of a squalling toddler, but on balance he does seem "more sinned against than sinning." What he is is old, alone, and badly loved. And that's why, when Lear wails, "Never, never, never, never, never" before his murdered daughter's body, much of my wing of the BAM audience was sniffling back tears; a few watched Lear's collapse through their fingers. Jacobi's final scene rocks and shudders with a grief beyond recognition—beyond acting, perhaps—and thus honors the paradox of King Lear: It looks like something we have no right to look at.