Howl, Howl, Howl, How Not
Royal Shakespeare Company, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y.,
August 6, 2011, Seats A–105&107 (left center stalls)
Directed by David Farr
After the first two feelingly spoken yet distinctly worded “howls,” Greg Hicks as King Lear looked toward Edgar, seemed to present the dead Cordelia he was carrying in his arms, and then inexplicably shook her as he said his third “Howl.” Tears? I stopped myself from snickering. Why a company of such distinction with a record of getting great actors to bring near-perfect diction to Shakespeare’s text should present such a dull and slightly bizarre reading of the three great howls is the lasting, disappointing impression of this emotionally hollow production.
Jon Bausor’s setting was suitable. The stage resembled a derelict warehouse, and the Edwardian costumes gave way to World War I uniforms with the French invasion, an apt reference to a historical apocalyptic breakdown of social order. Inexplicably, in regard to the setting, Cordelia (Samantha Young) wore an armor breastplate. While inexplicable for the setting, it surprisingly fit her character; in the opening scenes and even in the reconciliation scene, Young’s was a marshal-like Cordelia, a woman more interested in maintaining Lear’s reign than in care for her father.
Few of the players accomplished emotional connections, and this may have been due to the seeming incompetences—intentional or not—of their characters. This included Lear himself. Even at the beginning, he didn’t have that in him which one would fain follow: he lacked authority. He was more interested in laughs and good times. He entered his court from the wrong direction merely as a joke, he mouthed the concluding words to Goneril’s profession of love, and he winked at Cordelia to play along with the sham he was conducting (but he also made furtive glances at Kent who did not approve of the pageant and subsequent division of the kingdom). Later, Lear looked toward his Fool (Sophie Russell) with delighted anticipation at every joke and seemed bewildered when many of those jokes hit a bitter target. Lear’s subsequent rage was unaccountable; frankly, he seemed a bit mentally unstable even at the beginning of the play. Still, Hicks’ best moments were in the mad scenes when he believably presented a man who has completely lost his mental grip traversing through a series of delusions and hallucinations. That he seemed slightly mad at the beginning and still lacking his bearings at the end robbed this play of a valuable emotional context.
Other shortcomings appeared in Kent (Darrell D’Silva), who spent his time as the disguised Caius trying to impress Lear and become an accepted part of the gang (but his measured delivery of the insults to Oswald was a highlight of the production). Goneril (Kelly Hunter) was a worrywart, wringing her hands and furrowing her brow; or she suffered migraines. Clarence Smith’s Cornwall enjoyed his position and power but seemed wholly uncertain of how to apply either. And Edmund (Tunji Kasim) was played much too young. He seemed more the young prankster than a villain bent on destruction, and it was difficult to see how everybody could be taken in by his lies; and Goneril becoming completely undone with him was just creepy.
One character who appeared totally incapable at the start grew believably into a hero by play’s end. Charles Aitken’s Edgar was an entitled son of gentry with genuine filial and brotherly love, but once a fugitive and later as the blind Gloucester’s guide he learned not just survival but strategic maneuvering, too. His killing of Edmund was a case of practiced skill overcoming unlearned strength. Katy Stephen’s Regan strutted over the stage as both a political and sexual force, and while unabashedly cruel, she also came across as the most capable ruler of the whole realm. This was the first Regan I’ve seen that I could embrace, albeit as one might embrace a cobra. Another proven leader was Albany, played with upright stiffness by John Mackay. Never did he display a hint of weakness or revulsion; rather, he was like a West Point graduate in the upper ranks of his military career, and it was his sense of honor and duty that turned him away from Goneril and led him to be dismissive of the young Edmund as the newly minted Duke of Gloucester. Another capable character was James Tucker’s Oswald, a steward in the tradition of the Edwardian manservant, dedicated to service and loyal to his employer above all else. He’s also the only Oswald I’ve seen who didn’t get to speak his dying lines; Edgar just gets on with pilfering his pockets.
Before the lights went down, an exhausted Edgar sat at the back of the stage, staring off into nothing. After the announcement to silence cell phones and “bleepers,” the lights lowered, Edgar stood up and walked toward the throne covered in a tarp as the other court characters took their places (the opening Kent/Gloucester/Edmund conversation took place in the middle of the crowded court). Edgar then yanked the tarp off the throne and stalked off stage, the implication being that we were watching his recounting of the kingdom’s demise and his own rise to power. At the end we, too, were exhausted and staring off into nothing. But we shed no tears. No cause. No cause.
August 9, 2011