SAN DIEGO — In almost direct ratio to the difficulty of playing Shakespeare's "King Lear" lies the magnificence of its text. It is as hard as it is wise, as wrenching as it is violent, as humane as it is inhumane. The "strange mutations" of poor Lear's world do not go away. They haunt us still.
That explains why so many actors and directors are drawn to this vaulting, elegiac tragedy of a father undone by his vain misreading of the greed and mendacity of his invidious daughters--all, that is, but one--and why so few artists have it in them to fully realize the labyrinthine paradoxes of the play's raw vengefulness and its acts of profound kindness.
The parallel tragedies of Lear and the Duke of Gloucester are among the most complex and penetrating in dramatic literature, and are brilliantly fulfilled in the production that opened Saturday at the Old Globe Theatre.
Staged by the Globe's artistic director, Jack O'Brien, with actor Hal Holbrook in the title role, this is the most rigorous and eloquent "Lear" since "Ran," the Akira Kurosawa film based on Shakespeare's play.
This is not just thanks to Holbrook's brisk and intelligent central performance--by turns arrogant, stentorian, ebullient and heartbreaking. It is thanks to the completeness of O'Brien's vision, from David F. Segal's intricately selective lighting and the appropriateness of Robert Morgan's classy costumes, to Ralph Funicello's stunning scenic design: a vast, circular space often dense with fog and wallpapered in what looks like wet tissue; a dirt floor strewn with rock, flanked by heavy beams and lintels, and dominated by what looks like a petrified dinosaur egg.
Read into that what symbolism you will, but added to Larry Delinger's haunting music and the booms and claps of thunder of Jeff Ladman's sound design, it delivers an inhospitable, forbidding world.
But context is only part of the equation. Above all there is the company, a mix of four of the Globe's finest associate artists with one striking newcomer and a fistful of less familiar faces.
The newcomer is Robert Sean Leonard, whose performance as the mature and maligned Edgar, legitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester (Richard Easton), is thrilling in its virtuosity.
He jumps with ease from the unhinged antics of Poor Tom and the other personae he is forced to assume in self-defense, to valiantly settling the score with his illegitimate half-brother Edmund (a dark and dangerous Jonathan Walker), and his final ascent as Britain's designated new King.
It is a display as burnished as that of Easton's Gloucester, a fair and loyal man duped by one son to reject another and made to pay a terrible price for his momentary blindness: the permanent loss of his sight. Easton, who rarely disappoints, makes this one of his most compelling portrayals in a career virtually packed with them.
Not to be underestimated either is the purity of Jennifer Van Dyck's steadfast Cordelia, a beautiful young woman whose uncompromising heart rankles at cheap flattery and whose valor in the end is poorly repaid by an unjust world.
For the rest, the level playing field is at such a high standard and this staging so finely meshed that it suffices just to name some of the key players. They are Katherine McGrath as a particularly reprehensible Goneril; Kandis Chappell as a sniffy, insidious Regan; James R. Winker as the boastful and vicious Cornwall; Patricia Connolly as the aching, wisecracking fool with 20/20 vision; Michael Winther's weak Oswald; Walker's sullen conniver of an Edmund; and Jonathan McMurtry as Regan's husband Albany, a duke who saves his soul by coming to his senses just in time to help restore some semblance of sanity to the nation.
But even given all that, there can be no "King Lear" without a towering King, and Holbrook's transformations from the self-assured bon vivant to the crumbling, broken-hearted madman wandering the English countryside is every inch the Lear one had hoped he might be. What O'Brien has done is provide a context that illuminates the splendor of the play, with a measure of credit going to Dakin Matthews, who helped the actors work with text.
Never has that text seemed deeper or, sadly, more contemporary: With our world in turmoil, the image of Gloucester's blinded eyes behind their bloody bandage is a chilling reminder of the picture seen around the world of the same bloody bandage hiding the blown-out eyes of a Bosnian boy.
It's what keeps "Lear" timeless. Tragic for us that Lear's "forgive and forget" rattles across the centuries, its intensity undiminished and its meaning still unlearned. But lucky for us to see this play, for once, so majestically realized.
* "King Lear," Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Center for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 29. $22-$32; (619) 239-2255. Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes.
Hal Holbrook: Lear, King of Britain
Demetrio Cuzzocrea: King of France
Steve Jones: Duke of Burgundy
James R. Winker: Duke of Cornwall
Jonathan McMurtry: Duke of Albany
William Anton: Earl of Kent
Richard Easton: Earl of Gloucester
Robert Sean: Leonard Edgar
Jonathan Walker: Edmund
Patricia Connolly: The Fool
Michael Winther: Oswald
Katherine McGrath: Goneril
Kandis Chappell: Regan
Jennifer Van Dyck: Cordelia
An Old Globe Theatre presentation of Shakespeare's tragedy. Director Jack O'Brien. Sets Ralph Funicello. Lights David F. Segal. Costumes Robert Morgan. Sound Jeff Ladman. Composer Larry Delinger. Fight director Steve Rankin. Textual exposition Dakin Matthews. Production stage manager Douglas Pagliotti. Stage manager Maria Carrera.