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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

King Lear
New York Shakespeare Festival 1974    Autumn 2021

James Earl Jones as King Lear. It was an exciting prospect, even in 1974 when the actor was just 43.

And yet, while this production from New York City's free-Shakespeare-in-the-park theatre is very good, as how could it not be, it is not great.

The first thing you notice about Jones's performance is that he is not using The Voice. Once the disappointment at only hearing occasional rumbles of that magnificent basso wanes, you realise the omission is deliberate and part of a characterisation of the King that is valid but slightly disappointing.

Jones and director Edwin Sherin have clearly chosen to stress Lear's age and fragility, at the expense of his majesty and the depth of his emotional and psychological journey.

And while that fragility is part of Shakespeare's character, the absence of the rest keeps this production from greatness.

This Lear is, foremost, an old man, tottering slightly, physically supported by others, and without any real authority or power. The love competition and instant anger at Cordelia for not going along are played as wildly swinging whims, giving some credence to his elder daughters' suspicion he's losing his mind.

When he does get upset and enraged, there is no muscle behind his anger. The horrible sterility curse he throws at Goneril is empty I've seen other Gonerils physically quail as if being punched in the stomach by the words, but they go by without wounding here. And the macabre joking with the Fool never really touches the man already too weak to go much lower.

Despite all the evidence warning against it, you can't help waiting for the Storm Scene, hoping for that voice to boom out over the thunder. But Jones remains constant to his characterisation and the old man struggles to be heard over the storm.

An inevitable point of comparison for this production is Laurence Olivier's British television Lear of eight years later.

Frankly, Oliver wasn't all that strong in the first half of the play either. But he did produce true greatness in the pathos-filled moments of the second half Dover Beach, the awakening, and the heartbreaking final scene. But if Jones was merely not-quite-as-wonderful-as-we-hoped in the early scenes, he is actively disappointing in the last hour.

Dover Beach is empty recitation, the awakening is better, but the last scene is misdirected he's on his feet through most of it - in ways that keep it from overpowering us.

Elsewhere, the casting and performances are uneven. Rosalind Cash's imperious Goneril and Ellen Holly's oilier Regan are not sufficiently differentiated, and Lee Chamberlin's Cordelia barely registers.

As Edmund, Raul Julia might be a bit too moustachio-twirling Panto villain for some tastes, but he does bring welcome Byronic energy to the role and the play; and for my tastes Rene Auberjonois as Edgar was misdirected to be too exhaustingly manic in the mad scenes, though he does give a chilling hint of the sane man getting lost in his own masquerade.

Tom Aldredge's Fool is noteworthy only for following the then-current fashion for playing the jester as an older man whose wit and cynicism come from experience, while Paul Sorvino captures Gloucester's confusion and panic at being out of his depth at least in part by the sense we get of the actor stretching himself uncomfortably.

Recorded during one or more live onstage performances, the television version is a model of capturing the illusion of being there.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of King Lear - New York Shakespeare Festival 1974 - Autumn  2021