King Lear has my vote for the greatest play ever written, but as performed at BAM by England’s visiting Donmar Warehouse production, it is no such thing. Neither the Lear nor the Cortdelia is up to snuff, nor are Christopher Oram’s décor and costumes. Moreover, limiting the cast to bare essentials turns national tragedy into domestic drama, a kind of Kushnerized Shakespeare.
The stark semicircular row of tall gray walls made of geometrically carved, contiguous boulders may pass for Lear’s palace, and perhaps even for those of Regan and Goneril, but will not do for the many outdoor scenes, whether for a stormy heath, a battleground, or just plain landscape. And characters wearing the same formal black costumes and dress shoes throughout, even for combat, do not convince. Neither does the absence of courtiers, soldiery, and more than a couple of servants convey the requisite pomp and circumstance, though it may facilitate travel.
Derek Jacobi is a good actor for comedy and some kinds of drama, but a tragedian he is not. His Lear lacks a noble countenance, regal bearing, big emotions and progressive dishevelment. Rather, he gives us something like steady cantankerousness, sporadic hissy-fits, and whiny petulance. Great lines and whole speeches are more or less thrown away.
Thus I wouldn’t have thought it possible to make the maddened Lear’s response to the blinded Gloucester’s plea to kiss his hand—“Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality”—made unmoving by an overlong pause in the middle and a sotto voce finish, but Jacobi managed just that. Particularly feeble are his rage in the storm and flatness in his awakened social consciousness; so too his final scene is more stagy than shattering.
Of similar diminution is the colorless Cordelia–though played by an actress of color, Pippa Bennett-Warner–who emerges less interesting than her heartless sisters, suitably characterized by Gina McKee (Goneril) and Justine Mitchell (Regan). Alec Newman’s bastard Edmund, perhaps to compensate for his slight stature, is such an obvious villain as not to have fooled anyone. Legitimate brother Edgar is passable as a scholarly type disguising himself as near-naked beggar, but passable is not quite good enough.
Conversely, Paul Jesson’s Gloucester, Michael Hadley’s Kent, Ron Cook’s Fool, Tom Beard’s Albany, and Gideon Turner’s Cornwall are all perfectly on target, and so too, in the tiny part of the King of France, is Ashley Zhangazha, though his being black like Cordelia (rejected by the white Burgundy)makes it look like members of a minority sticking together, hardly Shakespeare’s intent.
Michael Grandage, Donmar’s departing artistic director, who also staged the hapless Hamlet with Jude Law in 2009, must be held in large part responsible. If we want hit-or-miss Shakespeare, we have enough of it in American productions—no need to import it from Britain.
Lynn Nottage may well be the one black playwright of whom it cannot be said that she amassed her many awards on her race and gender. Intimate Apparel and Ruined were solid plays, and so, more or less, is By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. It makes jokes about old subjects emerge refreshingly new.
We get the rising movie star Gloria Mitchell and her black maid, Vera Stark, an aspiring actress in 1933 Holywood. The incipient film, The Belle of New Orleans, will have the posturing Gloria in the lead, but competing for supporting roles are Vera and her two apartment mates: jolly, roly-poly Lottie and promiscuous Anne Mae. The former takes in sewing; the latter snags a date with Maximilian von Oser, the German director-to-be of Belle, who carries on about realistically portrayed suffering black slaves to the horror of producer Fredrick Slasvick, who wants nothing but escapist fare and cheerful blacks.
Meanwhile Vera has caught the lustful eye of spunky Leroy Barksdale, trumpeter and would-be composer, employed as von Oster’s savvy chauffeur. At a party in Gloria’s house, waiting on the fanatical director and finicky producer, Vera and Lottie hilariously act as pathetically kowtowing slaves, hoping to be cast in Belle: “Slaves with lines?” Lottie asks in wonderment. Equally funny is Anne Mae’s desperate Brazilian act under her flat-mates’ sarcastic scrutiny.
In Act Two, a scene on Brad Donovan’s popular TV talk show in 1973, reunites Vera, now a second-tier movie celebrity, and Gloria, turned British actress in an amusingly fake affectionate display, with the hilariously caricatured British hipster, Peter Rhys-Davies, their preposterous fan, cheering them on. Intercut with this is a 2003 round-table discussion of Vera Stark’s life and career, moderated by awed African-American Herb Forrester, with two antithetical panelists. One is Carmen Levy-Green, a sedulously scholarly historian; the other, Afua Assata Ejobo, a militant lesbian poet activist; their views comically clash. A film clip of Vera in close-up concludes the play with appropriate shaggy-dog ambiguity.
If you ask why so much plot summary, the answer is that, other than some funny dialogue and wittily contrived plot, there is no third, in-depth dimension. There is, though, some interpolated singing and dancing, which, though fun, is a trifle excessive.
Lovely Sanaa Lathan, as Vera, is equally expert as charmer and comedienne; Karen Oliva’s Anna Mae is delicious as pseudo-Brazilian man-eater and revolutionary poetess. Kimberly Hebert Gregory is as droll as sardonic Lottie as she is academic Carmen. Daniel Breaker is wonderful both as cocky Leroy and as pompously ingratiating Herb. Stephanie J. Block manages to keep different aspects of Gloria cleverly just this side of rampant caricature; whereas Kevin Isola, slightly overdone as Maximilian von Oster, is just right as Rhys-Davies. David Garrison is superbly parodic as a pandering producer and jesuitically opportunistic TV host.
Neil Patel’s sets, ESosa’s costumes, Tony Gerber’s film sequences and Shawn Sagady’s projections unstintingly contribute to the laughs. Jo Bonney’s direction may appear to lean a mite too heavily on the cartoonish, but finally suit the farcical spirit of the text. What her meretricious producer, Slasvick, dishonestly strives for, Ms. Nottage as writer honorably achieves: gusts of guffaws from an all-worry-forgetting audience.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.