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NYC Theater Review—Antony Sher in “King Lear” at BAM

King Lear

Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Gregory Doran

Performances through April 29, 2018

Antony Sher and Graham Turner in King Lear (photo: Ellie Kurttz)

King Lear should drain spectators as much as it drains the life out of its eponymous protagonist, who dies with his beloved Cordelia in his arms, his prideful transgressions also resulting in the deaths of his other two daughters, a son-in-law, and the complete destruction of his kingdom. However, of the many times I’ve seen Lear, the end rarely arrives with more than a shrug; that continues with Gregory Doran’s workmanlike Royal Shakespeare Company production starring Antony Sher at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


Two years ago at BAM, Doran and Sher’s collaborative Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 had the same strengths and weaknesses, but Sher’s tendency toward overripeness—superb diction but odd scansion and excessive zeal—worked better with Falstaff than Lear, which needs a more judicious balancing act between the role’s subtle humor and the tragic downward spiral from arrogance to madness to brief joy to final, fatal grief.


Doran’s lone innovation—if it can be called that—is an oversized glass box that Lear first appears in, carried in by his servants, as he declaims from on high and apart from his subjects about his “darker purpose.” The box returns for the torturing of Gloucester, which enables the “vile jelly” of his eyes being torn out of his skull to shoot all over the glass, where it looks like the gory contents of many more eyes than his mere two.


Doran’s otherwise measured pace has the desultory effect of watching a monochromatic melodrama, not Shakespeare’s taut tragedy. Niki Turner’s drab sets and costumes—the latter mainly all white or all black—might be an unintended comment on the director’s peculiar lack of shading. Botched is the climactic scene, as a wheeled-out Lear sits holding the dead Cordelia: this kills the effect of an incensed father howling over his daughter’s demise, his own frailty momentarily usurped by his overwhelming sadness. And Sher speaks Lear’s five heartbreaking “nevers” without ever cutting straight to the heart, sounding like an actor’s recitation exercise rather than the furious cries of a mortally grief-stricken man.


The large supporting cast is highlighted by Antony Byrne’s keenly observed Kent, Oliver Johnstone’s cogent and sympathetic Edgar/Poor Tom and Graham Turner’s amusingly stoic Fool. Conversely, none of the actresses playing Lear’s daughters makes much of an impression, while Paapa Essiedu—who plays Edgar’s villainous illegitimate brother Edmund—has been called a 28-year-old acting wunderkind, but his performance lacks sufficient variety, with an unfortunate singsong voice to boot. 


Ultimately, this is another production of King Lear that fails to scale the summit of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.


King Lear

BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

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