King Lear, Delacorte Theatre, New York – review

Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, King Lear can work best outdoors. The storm scene in Act Three is the very definition of elemental, and the story’s chaos seems starkest against a natural setting. Thus it might appear strange that this sometimes engaging, sometimes frustrating new production by The Public Theater (its final, free summer offering in Central Park) blocks out a verdant backdrop with a huge back-walled set, containing a spray of spikes suggesting an early Anselm Kiefer canvas.

But I suspect that the designer, John Lee Beatty, and the director, Dan Sullivan, wished to suggest something specific. Lear’s mental state is shrinking. As his capacities abate he feels reality closing in. If that was the intent, however, the title role would require an interpreter who could convey the diminution more eloquently than the actor here, John Lithgow.

At 68, Lithgow is considerably older than the great Lears of my early lifetime (Paul Scofield, John Wood), and in keeping with the tendency of New York productions in the past year to feature actors – Frank Langella, Michael Pennington – on the far side of 65. In snow-white, biblical beard, Lithgow strides on to the stage in full possession of greatness. The period suggested is vaguely Druidian.

He lays out the map of his kingdom and sets the plot in motion with clarity (the production’s greatest virtue is that it is a clear Lear). He will divide his kingdom between his three daughters – Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, the last of whom displeases her father and is banished.

Playing Goneril is Annette Bening, who returns to the New York stage after a quarter-century absence. It is a welcome comeback, even though Bening might do better to heed Hamlet’s advice to his players: “Do not saw the air too much with your hand.” The Regan of Jessica Hecht and the Cordelia of Jessica Collins acquit themselves nobly if not memorably.

As this long-feeling evening progressed, the meticulous Lithgow struck me as working too externally; even in a huge outdoor amphitheatre, there are ways to project Lear’s internal struggles. And without a more nuanced portrait of dementia, the work’s ability to connect with a contemporary audience’s concerns – people are living longer, and more of us find ourselves caring for a parent in psychological decline – is muted. With Lear’s trajectory underwhelming, I took refuge in the brotherly Edgar/Edmund subplot, with the former given gusto by Chukwudi Iwuji and the latter dastardly grace by Eric Sheffer Stevens.

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