Have you ever wondered, reading "King Lear," what could possibly be worse than having one's eyes gouged out?
The Royal Shakespeare Company helpfully provides an answer in its current production at the Park Avenue Armory, part of the Lincoln Center Festival: Having one's eyes gouged out with a poker, red hot from the fire.
Of course we're talking about the infamous scene where Gloucester, King Lear's unfortunate ally, is punished by his enemies. In an equally high-powered production of "Lear" a few months ago by the Donmar Warehouse at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of the extracted eyes was thrown with gusto onto a wall.
Which version is the more harrowing? It sounds terrible to say this, but it's a luxury for us theatergoers that we get to decide between them. And there's another major "Lear" coming up this fall, at the Public Theater — so look for yet another horrific way to lose one's sight.
Gore aside, "Lear" is one of the more compelling plays ever written, and few roles are so tragic as that of the monarch who so terribly misjudges his offspring. Greg Hicks is never less than totally eloquent in his portrayal here, and yet somehow this Lear never seems irretrievably broken. His performance anchors a production, directed by David Farr, that similarly is very accomplished without making a complete grab for the heart.
In Hicks' case, one reason might be that his Lear is rather a spry, fit character, both physically and, initially, mentally. In the opening scene, in a lovely bit of staging, he fools his court — and us — by entering at the wrong end of the room, getting an appreciative laugh from the audience. He seems so in control that it feels a little odd that he'd want to dispense with the duties of being king — a move which, of course, sets this tragedy upon its path.
And even when this Lear is left ranting out in the wild, a garland of flowers on his head, a bare chest and pants that he can't keep up, leaving us staring at his Fruit of the Looms for quite a while, he still somehow seems like he's got something left — which makes it more shocking when the end goes so horribly wrong.
Hicks speaks the role beautifully, as befits a veteran Shakespearean actor. Deft performances are also given by Darrell D'Silva as Kent, Sophie Russell as a female version of Lear's beloved Fool, and Charles Aitken as Edgar, Gloucester's "good son."
As for the bad son — Edmund — the production has made the odd choice of presenting him as a handsome young chap (Tunji Kasim) who barely seems sinister at all, just perhaps slightly miffed that as the illegitimate son, he's gotten the shorter end of the stick.
Is this an intended new take on the character? In any case, it's a little unsettling. It also takes much of the bite away from the sexual undercurrent between Edmund and Lear's spiteful older daughters.
Speaking of the horrid duo, Kelly Hunter makes a nicely hateful Goneril, and Katy Stephens turns on the sex appeal as Regan, the one who chillingly urges her husband to gouge out not just one of Gloucester's eyes, but "Th' other too." Samantha Young as Cordelia has little stage time to show not only the moral logic of her refusal to flatter her father, but also her love for him — the former coming across stronger than the latter.
Some Shakespeare productions stick with period dress; many opt for modern dress or switch to an entirely different period. Here, director Farr and costume designer Jon Bausor are doing both. The characters begin in period-appropriate robes; gradually, though, some suddenly reappear in Edwardian-style suits. But not all of them, which somewhat dilutes the effect. When battle starts, the soldiers are wearing World War I style uniforms and helmets.
"Lear" is not a short play, and this RSC version clocks in at three hours or so. One feels the action could move a little faster. Still, the cast is mostly as excellent as you'd expect from the RSC, and especially if you didn't catch Derek Jacobi's exciting Lear at BAM earlier this year, you should make it a point to get to the Armory before this "Lear" packs it up and moves back to Britain.