Joseph Papp conceived of a marathon at the Public Theater of every one of Shakespeare’s plays, in the order in which they were written. This began under Papp in 1988 and was continued by the Theater’s subsequent artistic directors, Joanne Akalaitis and George C. Wolfe, after Papp’s retirement and death. After early productions at the Delacorte Theater in 1962 and 1973 (see my previous blog post), the Theater didn’t tackle King Lear again until 1996 when its turn came up in the marathon.
The cast featured F. Murray Abraham as Lear, Jeffrey Knight as the Fool, John Woodsen as Kent, Breinin Bryant as Cordelia, Elizabeth Marvel and Margaret Gibson as Regan and Goneril, Rob Campbell as Edgar, Jared Harris as Edmund, and Thomas Hill as Gloucester. This production, at the Anspacher Theater, was directed by Adrian Hall.
Hall had a specific concept in mind for this one — to draw parallels between the war in the play, which is an internal conflict that splits the members of the royal family and another high-ranking family against their own families, and the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been going on from 1992 to 1995. Rehearsal notes show Hall’s intention to emphasize weaponry and all language with war imagery in the text. Reviews noted the costuming of the actors in military boots.
The production emphasized the darker aspects of the play and restored a rarely performed scene right after the gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes, which shows him being cleaned-up and bandaged by Cornwall’s servants. Many critics mentioned the grim design and grittiness of the production, set in bleak, ancient Britain.
On the whole, this production was not well received — most critics were dissatisfied with Abraham, some complained that the Gloucester sub-plot outshone the Lear plot, and others thought the Gloucester family was just as misguidedly depicted as the Lear family. Some complained that Hall’s production made even the sympathetic characters unappealing. The validity of this reading is supported by Hall’s stated intention to suggest that Lear had sexually abused Regan and Goneril.
Kevin Kline in King Lear, 2007
The Theater’s next Lear, in 2007, was a very hot ticket. It was directed by James Lapine and featured new music by musical theater god (and frequent Lapine collaborator) Stephen Sondheim. The production boasted a major star, who was also a Public Theater veteran — Kevin Kline. A protégé of Papp, working closely with him for years and appearing in more than a dozen Theater productions, Kline had been Richard III, Henry V, Benedick, and, most famously, Hamlet. After Papp’s death, Kline was made an Associate Producer of the Theater.
Other cast members included Michael Cerveris as Kent, Kristin Bush as Cordelia, Larry Bryggman as Gloucester, Logan Marshall-Green as Edmund, Brian Avers as Edgar, and Philip Goodwin as the Fool.
Ben Brantley thought Kline and the production were too slick, missing the scope of the tragedy, but in a later profile, Christopher Isherwood found plenty to praise in Kline’s Lear. Most critics thought the production was solid but strangely un-moving. This one may have been a bit bloodless (emotionally that is — the blinding of Gloucester was a gory as ever), but it wasn’t an obvious misfire like the 1996 production. Where that one was too dark, many critics found this one too light. The reviews were mixed, but despite the lukewarm reception, the production sold out its entire engagement.
It’s only been four years, but the Theater is having another stab at King Lear this season. The production, which stars Sam Waterston, runs from October 18 through November 20, 2011.
To learn more about these and other past productions at the Public Theater, explore the New York Shakespeare Festival Records and Additions at The New York Public Library.