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A CurtainUp Review
King Lear

When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools. — Lear
Anthony Sher as King Lear
The new Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music puts the grandeur back into Shakespeare's sublime tragedy. Starring Sir Anthony Sher and directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic director Gregory Doran (and Sher's real-life partner), it blew into the Harvey Theatre on April 7th, where it will settle in for a three-week sojourn.

Sher is no stranger to BAM. He performed Falstaff in the RSC's tetralogy King and Country at BAM in 2016. But stepping into the role of Lear holds a special significance for the seasoned thespian. Not only is Lear considered the Everest of acting, but Sher has disclosed that the ancient king will be his final Shakespearean role. (Prior to Lear, he tackled all the major parts (except Hamlet). In short, Lear becomes his swan song to the Bard.

It is an achievement against obstacles. According to his recently published memoir The Year of the Mad King, Sher dislocated his shoulder when playing Willy Loman in a 2016 RSC production of Death of a Salesman at Stratford. Since then, he has had surgery on the shoulder. But he still takes a bit of creative license with Shakespeare's iconic Act 5, Scene 3, stage direction ("Enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms.=") by entering in a wagon with Cordelia lying across his lap. The also suffers from what he calls "Lear's Ear," a hearing loss that his doctor suspects is exacerbated by acting anxiety.

This production doesn't follow the current fashion of portraying Lear with dementia. Instead we see the royal as suffering a kind of nervous breakdown after his abdication and dismemberment of his kingdom between his two older daughters, Goneril and Regan. (Cordelia, who stubbornly refused to play the evil flattery game, gets banished in Act 1.) That said, Sher paints the old king as much more than a royal looney. He plumbs the depths of his psyche and at play's end, renders him "every inch a king."

Close on Sher's acting heels is Paapa Essiedu, as Gloucester's bastard son Edmund. Here is a true villain who can parse the nature of bastardy in a witty self-defense and then scheme to deliver a forged letter to his father Gloucester, vilifying his legitimate brother Edgar (the protean Oliver Johnstone): "Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed/And my invention thrive, Edmund the base/Shall top th' legitimate. I grow, I prosper./Now, gods, stand up for bastards!"

There are other standout performances: Anthony Byrne, as Kent, in the disguise of the servant Caius, avoids the pitfall of playing the character as a mere do-gooder who faithfully follows Lear. Byrne puts fire in the character's belly and rightly turns him into a rugged warrior bent on protecting Lear's life.

Another fine performance is turned in by RSC heavyweight David Troughton, as Gloucester. Not only does he uncannily mirror Lear's self-induced tragedy with his own, but he personifies the idea that suffering (it's the one true action in the play) can lead to wisdom

Niki Turner, who does double duty as set and costume designer, has stripped the stage of the Harvey Theatre and added some imposing props and understated costumes that could nearly fit any historical era. For starters, Lear enters in a glass-enclosed palanquin carried by several cast-mates. Unsurprisingly, this lends an almost religious aura to the king's entrance. Some have compared the glass structure to the "pope-mobile." But whether you see the apparatus in a sacred or secular light, it underscores the idea that in the opening scene Lear should be viewed as a powerful figure of authority and a patriarch whose word is law.

In addition to that plexiglass palanquin, Turner has designed a glass "blinding box" for Gloucester, in which Regan's husband Cornwall cruelly plucks out the Earl's eyes in Act 3 and smears the blood from his guilty hands onto the plexiglass' surface.

Beyond the production's bloody stage business, there's another reason why this Lear is visually arresting. Unlike many Lears with small casts, one doesn't have to imagine Lear's retinue or knights in this realistic presentation. Local actors, all culled from the New York City area, share the stage with the professional actors from the RSC. At the performance I attended, 18 amateur actors performed in nonspeaking parts that included knights (no, you won't see the "hundred knights" noted in the text but a hefty cohort of them), hunters, vagrants, and other minor roles in the play. This community chorus grounds this presentation of Lear, and the sooty burlap costumes they collectively wear seem to shout loud and clear that poverty is a sore reality in the big city.

Charles Lamb famously argued that Lear couldn't be shown on stage except as a travesty of Shakespeare's original. Though this current stage production might not cover all the dramatic bases of this colossal play, it does prove Lamb was wrongheaded for thinking the Bard's tragedy was undoable. Bravo to Doran and Sher for teaming up and scaling Everest in the here-and-now!

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King Lear by William Shakespeare Directed by Gregory Doran
Cast: Sir Anthony Sher (Lear), Mimi Ndiwenias (Cordelia), Paapa Essieduas (Edmund), Romayne Andrews (Regan's Servant), James Clyde (Cornwall), James Cooney (Regan's Servant), Patrick Elue (Burgundy), Kevin N.Golding (Curan), Tracy-Anne Green (Regan's Servant), Nia Gwynne (Goneril), Oliver Johnstone (Edgar), Whitney Kehinde (Regan's Messenger), Byron Mondahl (Oswald), Esther Niles (Regan's Messenger), John Omole (Lear's Gentleman), Clarence Smith (Albany), Buom Tihngang (France), Graham Turner (Fool), Ewart James Walters (Old Man), and Kelly Williams (Regan).
Community Chorus Members: Trey Blackburn, Jube Charles, George Copeland, Giordano Cruz, Michael Fewks, Seon Gomez, Kevin Ray Johnson, Amy Lopatin, Francois Maree, Clayton McInerney, Nishad More, Solomon Peck, Drew Pisarra, Roxann Nadine Remekie, Celester Rich, Patrick Simas, Adam Thomas Smith, Victor Vauban Jr.
 Sets: Niki Turner
Lighting: Tim Mitchell
Music: Ilona Sekacz
Sound: Jonathan Ruddick
Movement: Michael Ashcroft
Fight Director:  Bret Yount
Stage Manager:  Maggie Mackay
Harvey Theatre at 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. Tickets: from $35. Phone 718.636.4100 x1 or
From 04/07/18; opening 04/15/18; closing 04/29/18.
Tuesday @7:30pm, Wednesday @7:30pm, Thursday @7:30pm, Friday @7:30pm, Saturday @1:30pm and 7:30pm, Sunday @3pm
Running time: 3 hours: 19 minutes with one intermission.

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