William Shakespeare's greatest tragedies -- Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra -- were all written between 1600 and 1607, a transitional period between the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, a time of the Bard's exceptional output as governments were shifting and the English Renaissance world continued its obsession with lust for power, shifting allegiances, and individual ambitions.
Fittingly, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival has opened director Geoffrey Sherman's provocative production of King Lear amidst our own political in-fighting that too often shows little regard for reasonable discourse or consideration of the consequences of rash and stubborn self-serving actions reminiscent of this bygone era. The next Presidential election is a year and a half away, and already the gloves are off; heads might roll by then. -- Costumed with a lush pallet by Pamela Scofield, and placed on Robert F.Wolin's stone fortress set, welcome to our own version of Game of Thrones.
From the beginning of the play, certain themes and refrains are evident. Shakespeare's contemporaries were concerned with the Natural world and often contrasted "natural" with "unnatural" behavior. Throughout King Lear these contrasts are painted so we see the "natural" [loyal, honest] actions of Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar, and the Fool in opposition to the "unnatural" [deceptive, scheming, disloyal] actions of Goneril, Regan, Albany, Cornwall, and Edmund. -- For the Renaissance audience, it was important for conflicts to be resolved and the "natural" order of things to be restored; the wicked are to be suitably punished, and while Lear and Cordelia die tragically, the kingdom is restored by Albany and Edgar. -- While there is argument for change in the play [out with the old feudal ideas, in with a new rational approach], Shakespeare appears to be more of a traditionalist here.
The play opens with the aging Lear [Rodney Clark in one of Shakespeare's most demanding roles] distributing his kingdom among his three daughters before he dies, though he stipulates that he will retain the honors and trappings of kingship and live by monthly turns with each of his daughters, assuming that peace and prosperity will be assured. They are each made to profess the degree of their love for him to deserve their portions. His two elder daughters -- Goneril [a cruel vindictive Jennifer Barnhart] and Regan [Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel at her most seductive] -- proclaim their love in excessive terms and Lear succumbs to their flattery. The youngest and favorite daughter Cordelia [Alice Sherman is understated and sincere in her honesty and love] can not follow suit and can say "nothing" to equal her sisters. When Lear banishes and disowns her ("Nothing will come of nothing..."), the King of France [Jonathan Weber] takes her for his bride, claiming that she herself is dowry enough.
When the loyal Kent [Brik Berkes, a master of disguise and sardonic humor] intervenes by pointing out Lear's foolishness, he too is banished, but returns in disguise in service to his king.
And Gloucester [Paul Hebron balances the Lear story with complete conviction], another loyal subject and himself the father of two sons -- legitimate Edgar [Bjorn Thorstad, meek at first but stalwart in consideration of his father's plight] and the bastard Edmund [Nathan Hosner's virile amoral portrait is a man we admire for his directness but loathe for his deceit] -- tries to keep the peace while the duplicitous Edmund schemes to pit his father and brother against one another, causing Gloucester to disown Edgar, who disguises himself as the mad Tom o' Bedlam. Edmund then aligns himself with each of Lear's favored daughters for his own gain.
While Goneril and Regan and their husbands Albany [Wynn Harmon has a conscience that will not let him continue the fight with Lear] and Cornwall [Jonathan C. Kaplan: low-keyed and brutal] plot to wrest all power from Lear, the king is reduced to scrambling for any sense of royal dignity as both his kingdom and mental faculties crumble around him. -- Accompanied by his Fool [James Bowen whose desperate attempts to get through to Lear are evidence of loyalty that knows no bounds], Lear abandons his daughters and rages against a storm as his inner turmoil reaches a breaking point. -- Soon afterwards, Cornwall and Regan gouge out Gloucester's eyes as punishment for his assumed guilt in aiding Lear and the French army led by Cordelia who are on their borders. The reunion scene between Gloucester and Edgar is one of the most touching in this production, and is balanced by the final scenes that reunite Lear and Cordelia.
Duplicitous and power-hungry siblings, lustful men and women, and greedy outsiders are pitted against honest and loyal retainers; and Shakespeare makes a lot of these contrasts. -- Lear is most certainly guilty of rash and stubborn actions, whether due to naivete or dementia, and could learn from the loyalty of Kent and Gloucester [and even from his scheming daughters who on the surface present reasonable arguments for their father in his old age to be ruled by younger and more vibrant people]. -- But Mr. Clark's Lear does garner sympathy as he justifiably claims "I am more sinned against than sinning" and "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child", and his ineffectual response to his punishments: "I will do...such things."
Lear is at the center of all the action; whether or not Mr. Clark is on stage, his plight and his presence are deeply felt. The consequences of his rashness in Act I become too much for Lear's already compromised mind to bear, and the subtle ways Mr. Clark bridges brief moments of lucidity with confusion and madness are exquisite signals of his acting powers. His is a monumental performance that carries the play to its tragic conclusion.