- William Shakespeare’s King Lear by William Shakespeare
The term “gender-blind casting” is always something of a misnomer, and never more so than in Sam Gold’s King Lear. There was nothing “blind” about it; Glenda Jackson’s gender was precisely the point—a banked-on novelty if not quite a gimmick. The part of Lear is one that few women actors have thus far chosen to take on. And yet there’s a way in which the scarcity of female Lears is puzzling. Advanced age has a way of softening binary gender distinctions anyway. Once the flow of sex hormones slows to a trickle, old men can sprout breasts and old women facial hair. Men’s voices grow higher and women’s, sometimes, lower. Lear is convinced he’s possessed of a womb at one point, and the aging Falstaff is replete with maternal qualities. Shakespearean theater made full use of the ambiguities of the prepubertal state, casting young boys as grown women. So why not take equal advantage of the post andro- and menopausal?
Admirably if somewhat programmatically diverse casting was a trademark of Gold’s production. Female Lear and Gloucester? Check. Black Kent, Albany and Burgundy? Check. Latinx Edgar and Edmund? Check. (Edgar spoke his lines in Spanish at one point.) Deaf actor to play Cornwall, complete with servant who signed for him and translated his signings back to English? Check. (Russell Harvard’s Cornwall was a particularly compelling performance.) In Gold’s view, the gods may kill us for their sport, but they’re apparently woke as well. Gold’s impulse toward heterogeneity extended less compellingly to dialect. Cordelia inexplicably spoke with an American, Goneril with an English, and Regan with an Irish accent. Perhaps these three sisters were sent to different boarding schools.
For the most part, the play’s diverse casting worked well and was also thematically appropriate. Lear is King of Britain, not of England. And the disunity of Britain was a burnng issue for King James I when Shakespeare penned his play. Casting an Irish actress as Regan and clothing Cornwall in kilts reminded us of that. And this is a play more generally about the dangers of division, after all— dangers that haunt contemporary America as well. The Trump-y resonance of Gloucester’s line “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind” provoked a collective shudder in the audience. The casting of Cornwall and Oswald also brought out important, related questions of social communication and its breakdown. When Cornwall’s servant balked at enucleating Gloucester, he also stopped translating, and so there was a period in which he and Cornwall both signed furiously with no explanation for the audience. In the context of Gloucester’s imminent loss of sight, this was powerful.
On the question of talent, casting was uneven. Unfortunately, on the night I saw the performance an understudy, Therese Barbato, subbed for Ruth Wilson in her duel casting as both Cordelia and the Fool. Barbato gamely played a somewhat Chaplain-like Fool with effective notes of menace but fell flat as a pancake in the part of Cordelia, especially in the play’s first, crucial scene. Pedro Pascal was an exuberant, Vice-like Edmund but Sean Carvajal proved strictly meh as Edgar. And then there’s the all-important question of Glenda Jackson, which will require some setting up before I address it.
First, though, some other matters. Goneril and Regan were made into more than the brittle masks of hypocrisy they can sometimes be reduced to, and this was refreshing. Elizabeth Marvel as Goneril was anguished at betraying her father—but did it—and lusty in the presence of Edmund (the two actually had brief, comic intercourse on stage). Aisling O’Sullivan was more problematic as Regan. She teetered on the edge of hysteria throughout, and her delivery was consequently so choked as at times to be almost indecipherable (though I suppose this fact fits into the larger motif of miscommunication). The [End Page 81]