If you read “King Lear” from cover to cover in Literature Humanities, my guess is that you’re in the minority. For the rest of us, the text is a struggle and the warm, glowing temptation of Sparknotes’ No Fear Shakespeare is just too hard to resist. “Lear” is a challenge for many simply because it was not meant to be read. It was meant to be seen onstage and—above all—it was meant to be heard.
To really hear “Lear,” one need only be lucky or determined enough to acquire a ticket for the Public Theater’s new Shakespeare in the Park production, running through Aug. 17 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. There, viewers experience a drama defined by sound—a synthesis of percussion and poetry. The set itself is simple: a flat, wooden platform in front of a grey, textured wall. The costumes are beautiful, but not opulent. The show doesn’t begin with the movement of a rising curtain, but rather the amplified vibrations of a gong. This “Lear” is not a flashing fireworks display, but a series of resonating frequencies. Each scene of the tragedy is punctuated by startling, metallic percussion that keeps eerie and regal time as the play’s eponymous hero crawls toward death.
Not even mallet on metal, however, could drown out the clear, emotional, energetic, and often hilarious dialogue delivered by the play’s talented cast. The actors’ masterful choices in the articulation of each and every dramatic line bring the play and the poetry to life in a way impossible to duplicate on the printed page.
John Lithgow, in the role of King Lear, traces his character’s descent into anguished madness with refreshing nuance and welcome touches of gentle comedy. He never simply shouts his lines, but riddles each word with stifled despair, confused power, and the agonizing self-doubt recognizable to anyone who has watched a loved one suffer through Alzheimer’s or dementia. His performance is epic, regal, and, in some ways, larger-than-life, but it is also incredibly real and surprisingly relatable.
The ensemble is so strong, however, that no one actor—not even Lithgow, can entirely steal the show. Lear, alongside his daughters Cordelia (Jessica Collins), Regan (Jessica Hecht), and Goneril (Annette Bening) manage to form a real on-stage family, refusing to be caricaturized or let their relationships be simplified. Eric Sheffer Stevens brings a new life to Edmund the bastard—creating a jealous, soulless villain whose wit and swagger somehow make him impossible to hate—while Steven Boyer spins Lear’s Fool into a lovable, affectionate companion who delivers thought-provoking proverbs thinly veiled beneath satire and physical comedy.
“King Lear” is a thematic paradox, combining the intimacy of familial relationships with the grandness of political drama. It is this seeming contradiction that makes it so perfectly suited for its performance space: an amphitheater that cozily seats almost 2000, yet remains open to the wind and sky. It is both crowded and boundless, intimate and grand. This particular play in this particular setting is a combination that really shouldn’t be missed.
“King Lear” runs through Aug. 17 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park (enter at 81st St. and Central Park West, or at Fifth Ave. and 79th St.). Admission is free. Tickets are given out daily at noon at the theater. There is also a virtual ticket lottery. Tickets are limited to two per person.