One of the toughest parts about playing iconic Shakespearean roles is convincing the audience that you are saying and thinking these lines for the first time. How is one, for example, to recite “To be or not to be?” or “Never, never, never, never, never” without summoning up the legion of actors who have already cemented these words in our consciousnesses? This is what immediately strikes one about Michael Pennington’s Lear: he seems unaware that he is the King Lear. There is a surprising casualness which makes the experience more immediate than usual—we are always with Mr. Pennington, never recalling his predecessors.
Still, what has the potential to be a tremendous asset quickly becomes a flaw. When Frank Langella played the part at BAM three months ago, he proved unaffecting; there was an emotional muteness which prevented us from being drained in quite the way we should after this tragedy. But next to Mr. Pennington, Mr. Langella’s Lear was a lion. Here we shuffle through the text out of obligation more than necessity, and after the final blackout we almost immediately forget what we have seen. Director Arin Arbus, previously so sharp with Shakespeare, finds no bare, forked animals in King Lear, only mildly inconvenienced monarchs.
Admittedly, this is occasionally effective. Rachel Pickup’s Goneril is never furious but always put-upon; when she kisses Cordelia (Lilly Englert) on the cheek, she behaves like a rich housewife deigning to acknowledge the plumber. And when the Duke of Cornwall (Saxon Palmer) finds the Earl of Kent (Timothy D. Stickney) fighting with Oswald (Mark D. Hold), he sentences him to the stocks while wearing a bib and munching on a piece of bread. But a successful Lear is not comprised only of its human moments, but also of its superhuman ones, the times when Shakespeare’s language and his actors’ performances gesture towards the sublime. Unfortunately, Ms. Arbus has given us the “unburdened crawl towards death” that her protagonist naïvely asks for in the play’s opening scene.
King Lear runs through May 4th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 3 hours 10 minutes. One intermission.