A Lear for Our Times

Mimi Ndiweni and Sir Antony Sher in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “King Lear,” directed by the company’s artistic director Gregory Doran, at BAM through April 29 only. | ISAAC JAMES ©RSC

BY ANDY HUMM | First things first. This splendid production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “King Lear”— directed by artistic director Gregory Doran with Sir Antony Sher as Lear in what he says will be his last Shakespeare performance (because what’s left for him?) — is at BAM only until April 29. Go. Now. It is the kind of crystal clear Shakespeare we rarely get the chance to see here.

No matter how well you know the play, sitting through this epic version in the midst of the madness of American and world politics is a chance to reflect on power and family dynamics — and to contemplate the tragedy of the destructive power of vanity, jealousy, and resentment. If that doesn’t sound like a play for our times, the opening scene — where Lear enters looking like a human mountain and demanding flattery from his daughters, giving over his kingdom to the sycophants — is to be put in mind of a Trump cabinet meeting. By play’s end, I came to think of We the People as Lear — citizens of a failing nation who committed suicide on Election Day 2016 by embracing a leader who told us we were great instead of dealing maturely with the issues before us.

This 1606 play is such an assault on the audience that the standard version from 1681 to 1838 — an adaptation by Nahum Tate – had a happy ending where Lear and Cordelia survive, she marries Edgar, and there is no Fool.

Doran’s production is a ship of fools and not just the Fool (Graham Turner), a daffy, scary, and wise clown tortured by the truth. Sher’s Lear is both tyrant and someone so eager to get on with carousing with his buddies that he leaves his kingdom divided and in the worst of hands — his treacherous and contemptible kids Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Regan (Kelly Williams). Good, responsible Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni) gets the boot.

Kent (Antony Byrne) gets banished for speaking truth to power, but returns to the disempowered Lear in disguise to try to return him to sanity.

Trusting Gloucester (David Troughton) is a believer in all kinds of fake news. His loyalty to the new regime earns him (trigger warning!) nothing less than a graphic gouging of his eyes by Cornwall, Regan’s husband (James Clyde) — and only after he has been taken in by the lies of his “bastard” spawn, Edmund (Paapa Essiedu), and forsaken his goodly son, Edgar (Oliver Johnstone). (The heartfelt reunion of Edgar, coming out of his “Poor Tom” dilapidated persona, and the blinded Gloucester was a deeply moving moment — right up there with Lear’s lament for dead Cordelia.)

Sir Antony Sher and Oliver Johnstone. | ISAAC JAMES ©RSC

Lear often shouts to the heavens and Sher sends his sonorous pleas directly to the rear balcony — what we might think of as cheap seats but where real power should reside, with average people.

We are privileged to have this production, born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2016 and honed to perfection in performances around the world on its way back to Shakespeare’s home May 23 through June 9. Catch it here whilst you can — and while we are still free to criticize our leaders.

KING LEAR | BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., btwn. Ashland & Rockwell Pls., Brooklyn | Through Apr. 29: Apr. 17-21, 24-28 at 7:30 p.m.; Apr. 21 & 28 at 1:30 p.m.; Apr. 22 & 29 at 3 p.m. | $35-$135 at BAM.org | Three hrs., with intermission