29 May 1964: Time

King Lear

The fatal flaw that mars Paul Scofield's Lear is detachment. In the Royal Shakespeare Company's version of the play now in repertory at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater, Scofield seems to see through Lear's nature and coolly contemplate Lear's fate, instead of suffering it. But Lear, like Oedipus, cannot see himself, or there would be no tragedy. He threatens to do such things as will be "the terrors of the earth," but his cruel lot is to have those things done to him. He is stretched on the rack of the world like a pagan Job without hope of redemption.

Just as the play moves from a royal court to bare, storn-blasted heath, so Lear is changed from the man who thinks he has everything to the creature who is made to know himself as "unaccommodated man," a "poor, bare, forked animal" owning nothing. It is a double fall and a double loss. The loss of his possessions scourges Lear almost physically. But it is the loss of order in human affairs and in the cosmic scheme of things that sends his mind whirling into madness. He is crushed by what crumples under him - the order of rank and authority, the order of filial devotion, and the divine order of the universe of which these earthly orders are, hopefully, the reflecting mirror. But Shakespeare was not hopeful when he wrote Lear: it contains his darkest and bleakest vision of human existence. He asks his tragic hero to look on horror bare, a grotesque, absurd, uncharted realm of meaninglessness.

To ask an actor to convey the blinding desolation of this vision may be like sending a man to do a god's work. The trouble with Scofield's performance is that he relies on technique to serve as passion. He is so cold in his rages that one cannot believe in the warmth of his love, even for Cordelia. When he prays, "Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven," there is no scalding terror of unreason in his voice. When he bears the dead Cordelia onstage and keens "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" she seems weightless, so hollow in his grief. And his fivefold, "Never" lacks the anguished sense of the finality of death. Cordelia (Diana Rigg) is equally cool, a sort of New York career girl, brittle, laquered, remote, more manikin than woman.

Lesser roles are better filled. Irene Worth's Goneril has poured a Borgia's venom into her veins, and Ian Richardson as the bastard Edmund has a subversive charm to match his crooked soul. Alec McCowen's Fool is refreshingly pensive rather than hopfootedly antic; he jousts as well as jests with the king.

While the costuming might be labeled G.I. nondescript, the stark grey and rust panels that serve as a set temper the throbbing Shakespearean line with a dry astringency. Director Peter Brook arrests his pace with symbolic and sometimes affecting visual still lifes, most notably the blinded Gloucester sitting motionless at the center of the empty stage whole the din of an offstage battle roars behind him. Brook's intelligence has shaped a Lear that knows its own mind and sticks uncompromisingly to it. Unfortunately, there is a hole in it's heart.

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