Lear at Lincoln Center

King Lear
King Lear; drawing by David Levine

The Royal Shakespeare Company recently brought their famous King Lear to Lincoln Center, where it was seen, if not heard, by full houses. This was the first time anybody had done a play in the State Theater. There can be more than one opinion as to whether this building is $19 million worth of theater, but most people would agree that if you are going to produce plays in it you have some obligation to make them audible. There were frayed tempers in the Company and drop-outs in the first-night audience. The architect, according to The New York Times, observed that the inaudibility of these experienced performers was only to be expected, since the building was not designed for speaking in. A droll affair! Great soapy statues dominating the gilded cage of the main concourse almost persuade one that it isn’t for opening the eyes in, either. But the fountain is pretty. And on the second night I think most people could hear; the actors saw that they must work exceptionally hard, and from the front rows you could see the spittle glittering in the lights.

This is perhaps as good a Lear as, in the present state of things, may be had, and there are moments when it is as good as may well be imagined. We are therefore obliged to speak nobly of Mr. Peter Brook, a director of high imaginative power and of sensitive authority over his excellent actors. If we are at once obliged also to speak ill of him, it is with the provision that his faults are to some extent inherited and inescapable. In fact, as Shakepeare observed, “we are all diseased.” There is no other way of explaining the degree of provincialism that has been found tolerable in a production of such metropolitan celebrity.

Let me explain what I mean by “provincialism.” I don’t mean that I found the Beckettism of the production unduly wanton; nor that the tattered austerity of the scene offended. One could even put up with the distractions of that clumsy furniture which, at the beginning, they were always carting on and off; and with the teetering tree-trunks that went up and down as if the stage were a grade crossing, and ancient British Railways, in a period of national crisis, were nevertheless getting the freight through regularly. Some of this paid off; the meagre lighting-plot, for instance, wasn’t at all a piece of inverted chic. But a good deal of this kind of thing in modern Shakespeare production, and especially at the top level, is self-regarding, not Shakespeare-regarding, and it is fair to complain about the ostentatious meddling that goes on. True, it is accompanied by feats of genius. This is the situation to be expected where Shakespare is produced by men of enormous gifts who lack a tradition and detest the idea of one. The gain is that everything…

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