Scott Klavan: King Lear at the Cort Theatre

King Lear by William Shakespeare

Directed by Sam Gold

Broadway: Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York, NY

Reviewed by Scott Klavan on May 17, 2019

The expression “He who yells is wrong” came to mind more than once watching Sam Gold’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at Broadway’s Cort Theatre, well-publicized for the gender-reverse casting of Glenda Jackson as the titular character. The saying implies that someone who has to raise their voice domineeringly to make their point is empty at the core, and it applies to this show, in which well-known respected actors and talented unfamiliar faces alike push and force hard to get their performances across, punishing Shakespeare and exhausting the audience with acting-class self-indulgence.

Three Daughters of King Lear by Gustav Pope

Glenda Jackson played Lear at the Old Vic in England in 2016, in a wholly different production directed by Deborah Warner. In the New York version, Gold and scenic designer Miriam Buether place the action in a mash-up of the 19-20th centuries, in an impeccable embassy style conference room, with hints of Edwardianism. Long tables, flag stands, and throne-like chairs cover the stage. Jackson enters as a diminutive barking CEO, immaculately suited, enjoying the trappings of power, and watches the competition between his three daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, for his love and fealty. As Lear’s disillusionment with his “thankless” daughters worsens, the world around him grows unrecognizable, his own identity crumbles, and his attachments to the tangible fade; correspondingly, stage settings are tossed about, broken, and, finally, turned into an unrecognizable heap.

Initially, Gold’s staging concept seems promising in terms of storytelling and some of the choices—a later Lear in a wheelchair—and technical tricks—fights and bloodletting, the blinding of Gloucester, final fate of Cordelia—do work well. (Original music by Philip Glass, performed by a string quartet, and the use of American Sign Language by some of the actors, seem like window dressing.) But the game plan never gets much beyond the conference room: the metaphorical wilderness the disintegrating Lear eventually wanders through with his Fool is not creatively imagined. After the lively, cohesive start, the physical aspects of the show, as well as the internal life of the characters, basically stop, smothered and swallowed by the bombastic acting. Director Gold, applauded/awarded for many shows, including Fun Home and A Doll’s House, Part 2, seems to have encouraged the overplaying or thrown up his hands. Either way, the show slips out of his control and the actors take over, barreling through complexity and meaning.  

The worst scenery-chewing offenders sadly include an inventively earthy veteran of many stage shows and TV’s long-running Homeland, Elizabeth Marvel as Goneril; the beautiful passionate member of Ireland’s great Druid Company, and so effective in Druid at BAM’s recent production of The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (reviewed here), Aisling O’Sullivan as Regan; skilled Off-Broadway and TV actors making their Broadway debuts, Pedro Pascal (Edmund) and Matthew Maher (Oswald). In keeping with the show’s swapping of the gender focus, the daughters were apparently designed to stand out in their forcefulness and self-possession, and this does add some hot sex scenes. But Goneril and Regan devolve into chair throwing, throat-burning screaming, and endless crying; it’s one thing to have strong, abrasive characters, another to have actors celebrate their center-stage emotionality to the point of annoyance and even ludicrousness.

Other actors survive, or do better than that. Regarded pros John Douglas Thompson (Kent) and Jayne Houdyshell (Earl of Gloucester) sidestep their fellows’ constant shouting to arrive at full, varied characterizations. Houdyshell, excellent in The Humans and many other shows, makes the switch of playing a man into a believable success. After a time, you forget this is a woman, which (I guess?) is the point. Sean Carvajal, in another Broadway debut, finds warmth and humanity in the beleaguered Edgar, and Ruth Wilson, from TV’s The Affair, and star of England’s Donmar Warehouse, in clever double-casting, does rich comic improvisation as The Fool and gets the sincerity and tragedy of Cordelia. Dion Johnstone’s Duke of Albany has a competent clarity and lack of pretension that provides relief.

Glenda Jackson as King Lear, photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Glenda Jackson has been on Broadway many times, in shows including the theater version of Marat/Sade, Rose, and Strange Interlude; and, of course, on film in Women In Love, Sunday, Bloody, Sunday and A Touch Of Class, et al., and TV in Elizabeth R and the underrated The Patricia Neal Story. After making a celebrated return to acting in Three Tall Women in 2018, following over twenty years as a Member of Parliament, she makes the leap to King Lear. Now 83 years old, her energy, presence, and facility with language are amazing. But Jackson, too, is part of the problem. Her stern confidence and imperiousness work nicely at the top, but Lear’s descent stops a few steps down the ladder; we never get to the bottom. Vocally, Jackson is at a repetitive fever pitch for the majority of the production—particularly egregious in the hard-to-watch “Blow winds” storm scene—and while it matches the straining surrounding her, the softness that might have accompanied Lear’s humiliation and naked frailty is only sporadically evident. When a failing Lear asks, “Where have I been? Where am I?…I will not swear these are my hands,” it seems a rhetorical question, or worse, a kind of old-school showy singing of the lines, instead of a genuine questioning of age and helplessness. (The tattered under garment/rags associated with Lear’s wasteland wanderings are replaced by a nice pajama combo, seemingly from Bergdorf’s.) The role of Lear requires a star, but that is the challenge. How does a charismatic, super-dynamic player slough off the ego, let go, and really express the vulnerability and feebleness? Jackson never does it; she holds onto the reigns. (Unlike Elaine May’s brilliantly bold work as a woman suffering from dementia in this season’s The Waverly Gallery, reviewed here.)

Interestingly, Antony Sher, lesser-known in the States, gave us more moments of openness, fear, and humor in BAM’s comparatively under-the-radar 2018 Lear. A little wordless addled dance Sher’s king performed sticks with me.

Ruth Negga as Hamlet

The matter of a woman doing Lear quickly fades into the background here, becoming a side issue. For all of the production’s continually patting itself on the back for the attempt, it can’t depend on a sweaty showing off of the gender concept to carry the three hours and 30 minutes. For the record, women playing male Shakespearean roles is becoming less of a novelty. Donmar Warehouse has done several all-female versions of the plays, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, including, recently, The Tempest, starring Harriet Walter as Prospero, which played Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. Ruth Negga did Hamlet for the Gate Theatre in 2018. (Sarah Bernhardt famously played Hamlet beginning in 1899.) US Regional theatres have been switching genders for some time; Deborah Staples’s Hamlet was at the 2016 Illinois Shakespeare Festival. As this review is written, there is an all-female Macbeth by the admired Red Bull Theater Off-Broadway. And more presumably to come.

This show was performed at the Cort, a relatively modest, terrific Broadway space that has housed shows going back over eighty years. But it was where the reviewer had the bad karma/luck to be seated next to the worst member of an otherwise respectful audience: a woman of around thirty, dressed stylishly, who sat with her bare feet on the mezzanine railing in front of her, exclaiming loudly and ostentatiously throughout the play: “Wow!”,  “Nice!”, “Awesome!”, and, finally, “WowWowWow!” After a while, I viewed her aggressive narcissism as part and parcel of this Lear; she fit right in, a new-found supporting character. King Lear explores, among other things, the humility that all of us, even the so-called Great, must finally face in our trip through life. This production runs from it, and the self-absorption on stage was reflected back by my neighbor, an ambassador of our current unhumble age. 

As Shakespeare famously wrote at the close of King Lear:

You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave. 
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like molten lead…

Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, Warner Bros. and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival.  He directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival. Scott directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. He is currently directing and developing the play One Moment, by Broadway producer James Fuld, Jr. In 2017, he directed and co-wrote with Del Fidanque Off-Line and directed Night Shadows by Lynda Crawford, in Emerging Artists Theatre’s (EAT) New Work Series. He is a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop. He teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations. 

Scott Klavan’s Website

Scott Klavan’s Review of The Waverly Gallery at EIL

Scott Klavan’s Review of The Beauty Queen of Leenane at EIL

Scott Klavan’s Review of The Humans at EIL

Scott Klavan’s Review of The True at EIL

Cort Theatre



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