Audiences love to applaud a star making an entrance. But when Antony Sher—titan of the theater, and arguably the best Shakespearean actor of his generation—floats on stage in King Lear at Brooklyn Academy of Music, carried aloft in a glass box, there’s not a clap to be heard. His mere presence demands silence, and submission.
Has Shakespeare’s aging, raging monarch ever made such an epic entrance? Literally behind glass, like a precious jewel that must be shielded from casual onlookers. Underneath (the glass eventually descends), he’s wrapped in a fur that reaches from his beard to the floor. Atop the fur, he’s wearing more gold than an ’80s rapper.
Everything about this Royal Shakespeare Company production—from Niki Turner’s lavish costumes to the 12 local amateur actors in assorted nonspeaking roles to a bloody eye-gouging scene that would make Martin McDonagh proud—says epic. And why not? It’s being billed as Sher’s last Shakespeare. (Not that he’s officially renouncing the Bard! But after playing Shylock, Titus, Leontes, Macbeth, Iago, Prospero, Richard III, Falstaff, and now Lear, well—what else is there?) Go big or go home.
Sher’s performance, however, isn’t as massive as you might be expecting. In his first scene, when he asks his three daughters which loves him the most, he’s up to 11. Once he’s divided his kingdom two ways—not three, since Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni), his favorite, wouldn’t flatter him falsely—he starts to steadily lower the volume. When he receives less-than-royal treatment from his eldest daughter, Goneril (Nia Gwynne), he almost grows smaller before our very eyes. (Yet somehow he summons the wherewithal to ask the gods to make Goneril sterile!) When he’s rebuffed by middle daughter Regan (Kelly Williams), he loses even more of his luster. By the time he decides wandering around in a furious storm is preferable to living with either daughter (“unnatural hags”), he’s almost ready to surrender. “Here I stand your slave,” he shouts at the thunder, “A poor, infirm, week, and despised old man.” His Lear will go gentle into that good night.
Others, of course, raged (raged!) against the dying of the light. Frank Langella, for instance, was a blustery blowtorch of a Lear in at BAM, via Chichester Festival Theatre, in 2014. Stacy Keach—in Robert Falls’ scorching Goodman Theatre production at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2009—was brimming with bile and bitterness. Still, Sher, who makes the “crawl toward death” with more serenity and less self-righteousness, is every bit as regal and commanding as Langella, Keach, and, oh, go ahead, name any of your favorite Lears.
Speaking of commanding: You’ll likely never see a better bastard Edmund—aka the traitor who romances Goneril and Regan (both married), tricks his brother Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) into hiding out as a madman, betrays his father (which leads to the aforementioned eye-gouging), and arranges for an untimely final-scene hanging—than Paapa Essiedu. I’ve never seen Edmund’s base-baseness-bastardy-base-base speech done with quite so much amusement, or so much hissing. (Heads up: The RSC’s Hamlet, with Essiedu in the title role, is playing D.C.’s Kennedy Center May 2–6.)
At the interval last night, a group of men behind me were ticking off all the Lears they’d seen and ranking their favorites. I won’t bore you with my list, but I’ll say this: If you’ve never seen King Lear, seeing Antony Sher, directed by Gregory Doran (who also helmed the RSC’s Henriad at BAM in 2016), is a rare, rare treat. And if, like some of us, you’re a couple Lears short of a top 10 list, you certainly won’t regret spending another three and a half hours with Shakespeare’s most tragic monarch.
King Lear opened April 13, 2018, at BAM and runs through April 29. Tickets and information: bam.org