Last night I saw Kevin Kline play King Lear in the New York Public Theater’s current production, directed by James Lapine. I’ve seen quite a few Lears in my time, but Kline was the first I’ve seen who entered in the finally scene and utter the lines "Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones: / Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so / That heaven’s vault should crack" without howling. Kline spoke the lines in just above a whisper, imploring rather than demanding or railing. This was an exemplary moment in Kline’s grandly understated performance. His Lear was indeed an egotist, but not a rash or naturally volatile man. He was, rather, a rationalist, a man of a calculation … who miscalculated — and was too self-confident and self-absorbed to consider that he might be in error until it is far too late. He can see madness approaching but tries to hold the line: "Hysterica passio, down, thou climbing sorrow," uttered without histrionic display that other interpreters often affect. Kline’s Lear, in contrast, for example, to the Lear that Christopher Plummer powerfully presented at Lincoln Center in 2004, is not yet a man on the verge of infirmity: he is driven to infirmity and madness by those around him.
Around Kline’s Lear, the production swirls noisily, with actors climbing up and down the scaffolding erected in the Anspacher. The blinding of Gloucester has a touch of Tarantino about it, with quivering eyeballs held up and then thrown down. The heath scene is staged in a way that sets it off from the rest of the production. White gauze curtains stream down on all four sides of a square downstage, surrounding Lear, Kent, and the Fool: light simulates rain pouring down, punctuated by flashes of that illuminate the whole auditorium. The staging has the effect not only of dramatizing the stormy heath but also of dramatizing the isolution and claustrophobia that these characters feel. The Fool was played, for a change, by an older man, allowing the production to emphasize the likeness between Lear and the Fool — and allowing Lear to emerge as himself a Shakespearean fool. The wise Fool disappears halfway through the play: in this production, his place is taken by Lear.
My favorite directorial touch, however, was an addition to the text: a Shakespearean dumb show presented as the audience is sitting down before the play. Three young girls, dressed in red, green, and blue, portraying Lear’s daughters when they were children, are playing with bottles of brightly colored sand, slowly creating a map of Britain, the coast outlined in red, the land green, marked by blue rivers, surrounded by a bright blue ocean. As the play opens, the girls are replaced by their adult counterparts: Goneril in a green gown, Regan in red, and Cordelia in blue. The girls appear again later, as apparitions: young Goneril and Regan in the trial scene that Lear directs in Tom’s hovel, young Cordelia as a vision that Lear takes with him to the grave.
I found myself moved by the exchanges between Cordelia and Lear in the play’s second half. Kline’s Lear showed me things in the text I hadn’t seen before, and I’m grateful to him for the experience.