Friday, March 05, 2004

Ben Brantley is probably my favorite New York Times critic, in part because he writes about theater and I'm unable to see anything he reviews. I can't balance his opinions against mine, as I can with book and film critics; all I can go on is what he says, independent of any thoughts of my own, and that's more than enough: he writes with the kind of astuteness that teaches and enlightens regardless of whether you've seen the show. His review in today's paper of King Lear -- starring Christopher Plummer in the lead, a performance everyone is raving about -- is a perfect example. Even if you can't drop what you're doing and go see it -- which I'd love to do -- you can gain a lot from his own insight into a great play.

Granted, this production brings out all that's best in him. Based on my one dreary experience with seeing Lear performed (and many readings), I can't help but want to see a production that "moves so quickly [and] highlights the play's imagistic motifs so simply and clearly." When I saw Lear last year at USC, it didn't amount to much more than watching an extraordinary feat of memory. It had no life or electricity to it; all you felt when it was over was that you had perhaps watched a stunning feat of memory, nothing more. Reading the play -- the most powerful in the English language -- shakes you to the core; hearing it, in my one experience, amounted, as is sometimes the case in Shakespeare productions, to merely listening to a riot of words.

Some key points Brantley makes, about the production but more specifically about the play:

*Nothingness is the backdrop against which the worldly domestic and political feuds of "Lear" take place. It threatens and eventually devours all but a few of the play's principal characters. And you get the sense that even the survivors are just marking time until darkness comes for them, too.

*How Lear deals with these daughters, and how they deal with him, will no doubt seem painfully pertinent to many middle-aged people with elderly parents (and to elderly people with middle-aged children). Though there is nothing at all contemporary in the staging, its thorned sense of family relations and disintegration seems freshly vibrant in an age when people are more likely to live to the four score and more years of Lear.

*In this version, more than in most, Lear's Fool (Barry MacGregor, in a shrewdly underplayed interpretation) might be an imaginary friend, a conscience summoned by what is best in the king's character. Mr. Miller takes the liberty of having Lear first enter with the Fool at his side. The uncanny rapport is always evident: the Fool gives Lear his grounding in reality, with the servant articulating the master's unspoken and unconscious thoughts.

When the Fool disappears, Lear is truly adrift. He no longer knows who he is. Of course, Regan has said in the first act that while her father's erratic behavior may be "the infirmity of his age," he "hath ever but slenderly known himself." And Mr. Plummer always summons both aspects of the equation. This ancient soul slipping beyond knowledge of himself is clearly an exaggeration as well as an erasing of what was.

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