The seldom seem Shakespeare, often touted as the greatest tragedy in drama, began previews on Feb. 11, bringing Plummer back to the New York stage for the first time since he won a Tony Award for Barrymore in 1997. The production is the huge nonprofit's second ambitious foray in Shakespeare this season, following last fall's well-received four-hour Henry IV, with Kevin Kline, Michael Hayden, Richard Easton and Ethan Hawke.
The two stagings bear some similarities. Both are anchored by towering performances by respected veterans of the stage, and both texts are treated to a straightforward directorial approach (buttressed by a simple, two story all-purpose set) which emphasizes narrative and storytelling.
A full staging of King Lear has become an increasingly rare sight in New York—some say because the actors who have the chops for the taxing title role are few, and those that are up to the assignment are disinclined to take on an exhausting eight-show-a-week run of a nearly four-hour play. (Plummer performs five times a week.)
The tragic plot is launched by aged Lear's decision to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. Regan and Goneril display ostentatious fealty and offer fawning words. Lear's youngest, the loving and sincere Cordelia, however, refuses to flatter her father. Misunderstood, she is cast out by a raging Lear, who, as the Fool states, has grown old before he grew wise. He soon after banishes the lord Kent, who entreats him to call Cordelia back. The king's faith in the two smiling daughters is ill-placed and he soon finds himself shunted aside and abandoned. The subsequent scene in which the mad king— accompanied on a "blasted heath" only by his Fool and the faithful Kent— takes his fury out on the elements ("Blow, winds, and crack you cheeks!") is one of the most iconic in western literature. A parallel plot in the play shows the equally foolish Earl of Gloucester easily falling prey to the lies of his villainous bastard son Edmund and turning against his good-hearted son Edgar, with equally dire consequences.
As with Henry IV, this King Lear has been seen elsewhere before reaching New York. Director Jonathan Miller and Plummer re-create work they did for the renowned Stratford Festival in summer 2002. Some cast members from that production return to this New York production. The cast includes James Blendick, Domini Blythe, Benedict Campbell, Brent Carver, Ian Deakin, Claire Jullien, Barry MacGregor, Lucy Peacock, Stephen Russell and Brian Tree, all well-known names in Canada. Carver, who plays the abused Edgar, was Tony-nommed for playing Leo in the musical Parade at Lincoln Center Theater. He won the Tony Award for playing Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman, the musical.
Lincoln Center Theater's production of King Lear has sets by Ralph Funicello, costumes by Clare Mitchell, lighting by Robert Thomson and original music composed by Berthold Carrière. The run is being billed as a limited engagement.