King Lear: good-bye to the mad king…

So. King Lear.

Where does one begin? With a bad joke, perhaps? Shouldn’t this play’s title (or at least subtitle) be “Much Ado About Nothing”?


Sorry. Couldn’t resist.

When I began this project, the play stood like a monolith, huge, implacable, and most likely un-stage-able. I had remembered it as long, stuffed so full of ideas, that it was better on the page than the stage. You simply couldn’t have a production that was great.

Memory is weird like that. It can create a behemoth in your mind, when what you’re dealing with is really a giraffe. Taller than the rest, at times a little gawky and unwieldy, but ultimately graceful in its own way.

Like I said, I remembered King Lear as being really long. But as I look at the line counts, our version ranks 14th of our 36 plays. So at 3690 lines, it’s longer than average, but not by much. (those numbers are, of course, for the Folio/Tragedy version…the Quarto/History version is a bit longer, but still it barely cracks the Top Ten). I don’t know why I thought it was so long.

And as for “unstageable,” it’s probably because I hadn’t seen a great one up until then.

The first Lear I saw on stage was…different…an “exploration” of the play by famed director Robert Wilson in the mid-80s while I was a student at UCLA (my professor, the absolutely brilliant David Rodes acted as dramaturg on the workshop production). The script had jettisoned over half of the play’s lines but still ran more than three hours. I’m not sure it was the right Lear to be my first.

The next Lear I saw was in ‘89 or ‘90, when Kenneth Branagh brought both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear to the states. It was good (with Branagh as Edgar and Emma Thompson as the Fool), but not great. And I saw a local production in the mid-90s that was ok, serviceable.

Now, back in 2014 I saw Shakespeare’s Globe’s stripped-down eight-actor Lear when it toured. At the time, I wrote:

I’ve often thought that Lear is Shakespeare’s ultimate triumph as a playwright, that this is his masterpiece on the page. But because of all that is in the play, the characters, the parallels, the subplots, madness and cruelty, there’s simply no way to have a great, let alone perfect, production onstage.

And I’m not going to say this is a perfect production. Nor is it transcendent. But this touring Lear, with its small cast, economically trimmed text, and mercurial direction by Bill Buckhurst, flirts with greatness, coming the closest to a full realization of the play that I have ever seen.

There’s no such thing as a perfect production, but there can be greatness, there can be transcendence. I just haven’t seen one live, but I think it’s still possible with King Lear. The three best video Lears in my mind were all originally stage productions, including the 1998 Ian Holm and the 2008 Ian McKellen, and one of them (the 2012 Jonathan Pryce) was actually captured from a live performance.

So what do I think today, after three months with the mad king?

Well, I still think it’s a masterpiece. Absolutely awe-inspiring on the page. As for quality, it would go pretty near the top of my list. But enjoyment is a different animal. Don’t get me wrong, I like this play. A lot. But I don’t love this play. I respect it, admire it. But there’s just something about it that stops my enjoyment. Is it the storm scene that just screams out award-bait for an actor? Maybe. But more likely it’s Edgar. He’s too good (I know, I know…he’s the only character in the play who takes the lives of two other characters…so how good can he be, right?). But he just comes off too much like a saint. I can see how he can be a fascinating study for a scholar or an actor, but he just doesn’t grab me as an audience member. In fact, he kind of bores me. So on an enjoyment scale–which is what I always base my rankings on–King Lear doesn’t reach the top. Like I said, I like it. Like it enough to put it in the Top Ten, just behind Twelfth Night, and just ahead of Richard III. [sick bastard that I am, I still enjoy gore-fest that is Titus more… I know, right?]

King Lear is a great play, and I like it. I just wish I loved it more.

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