King Lear: Sam Waterston's Shakespearean Everest

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08 Nov 2011

Sam Waterston
Sam Waterston
Photo by Joan Marcus

The tireless Sam Waterston reaches the summit of King Lear, returning to a familiar mountain range — The Public Theater.


Like most actors (at least, the ambitious and striving ones), Sam Waterston has hit his year of Lear — that great gray bear of a mountain that looms darkly in the distance of an acting career as a test of mettle. His favorite workplace, the Public Theater, has provided him the chance to sally forth, now through Nov. 20, majestic as all get-out, as Shakespeare's confused, crumbling, daughter-divided King Lear.

"I don't know if all actors feel compelled to climb that mountain, but it has been on my mind for a long time, certainly," he admitted. "As the years advance and you can't play Hamlet anymore, it becomes the obvious object of attraction."

Forget Hamlet. Nowadays the silver-haired-and-70 Waterston works from a post-Polonius perspective. In fact, he mentioned, "Are you aware that, in the past 40 years, I was in every single production of Hamlet that has been presented in the park?" — from playing Laertes for Stacy Keach's Hamlet in 1971 to his own melancholy Dane in 1975 to Polonius for Michael Stuhlbarg's Hamlet in 2008.

And now, there's Lear — and he has jumped in with both feet. "We're in the trenches right now," he said during a rehearsal break. "That's where the joy and tears are. It's an absolutely gigantic play. Whatever you've got to give, it's got a use for.

"I can't even tell you what the original motive was [for wanting to do this] apart from the fact it's there, like Everest. When you begin to work on it, you realize it is an astonishing piece of dramatic poetry and you're in the hands of a master who is right at the very peak of his powers and has such large things to say."

Sam Waterston and Kristen Connolly
photo by Joan Marcus

It's a sentimental journey, returning to the Public and the Bard simultaneously. "We rehearse in the same hall where I rehearsed so many Shakespeares in the past." Like: Measure for Measure (as the Duke), Cymbeline (Cloten), Henry IV Part I and Part II (Prince Hal) and As You Like It (Silvius). "I did Much Ado About Nothing twice in the park. In the last one, I actually played the father [Leonato] of my own daughter, Elisabeth, and in the first one, I met by chance my daughter's mother while I was rehearsing to play Benedict. She denies it, but I've always thought Benedict gave me a leg up with her."

Both of his actress daughters, Elisabeth and Katherine, would come in very handy these days as Lear litter, but, unfortunately, they're toiling in The Cherry Orchard at Classic Stage Company, and son James is doing a Holocaust play. So director James Macdonald outfitted the family with Kelli O'Hara (Regan), Enid Graham (Goneril) and Kristen Connolly (Cordelia).

On the men's side of the court are Bill Irwin (The Fool), Frank Wood (Cornwall), John Douglas Thompson (Kent), Richard Topol (Albany), Michael McKean (Gloucester) and Arian Moayed (Edgar).

New York (if not Waterston) has seen lots of Lears of late — the Royal Shakespeare Company's Greg Hicks and Ian McKellen, the Donmar Warehouse's Derek Jacobi, Canada's Christopher Plummer. "Of course, I was hugely tempted to see them because I knew I was going to be doing this," said Waterston. "Then I remembered what Rosemary Harris said: 'You want to go to drama school as early as possible so you have time to forget everything you learned.' If there were time to forget everything I learned from their Lears, they would have been invaluable to see, but there wasn't. I was afraid I wouldn't digest them all."


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