King Lear, Public Theatre, New York

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On the advertisement for this Lear Kevin Kline resembles a superannuated Pan, an image that his performance as the king mostly belies. He is neither youthful nor frolicsome; all that smacks of Pan is his vanity, which has often been a stronger suit for Kline than his vulnerability.

Kline’s Lear does not shy away from exposure. The king’s process of stripping away – from the first scene, when he gives his lands to his daughters, to their denying him shelter, to his raging upon the heath – is dutifully observed. If I sometimes missed the emotional transitions that the greatest Lears bring to the process of breakdown, the truth of the decline was never in question. As a study of madness, Kline’s Lear is a worthy companion piece to his superb Hamlet at the same theatre two decades ago.

Kline’s voice is commanding. If he has a tendency to emphasise a key phrase at the expense of the poetry’s flow, his approach almost always makes sense. Both he and James Lapine’s production have what every contemporary Shakespeare staging must have: clarity. If an audience in 2007, for whom the Bard is a quasi- foreign language, cannot follow what is happening, especially in a play with as much plot as Lear, then little else can register.

In addition to comprehensibility, this production sounds what has been, from the play Twelve Dreams to the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a favourite Lapine theme: childhood. Before the curtain, three little girls paint Lear’s kingdom in the sand that lies underneath Heidi Ettinger’s metal-grate set.

These elemental materials, which bespeak the soft human underbelly of the hardness required for rule, are enhanced by the clucking percussion of the sound effects. Michael Starobin and Stephen Sondheim (with the latter Lapine co-created the musicals Sunday in the Park, Into the Woods and Passion) have contributed music. A soothing tune sung to Lear by the Fool, played by Philip Goodwin, and a dressed-down Earl of Kent, played by Michael Cerveris, is one of the highlights.
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