Arts & Entertainment

Shakespeare Theatre Company Delivers Bold, Modern ‘King Lear’

In the film Ran, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa showed us how Shakespeare’s powerful play King Lear could be transferred across cultures to medieval Japan.  The current production of the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Klein Theatre in Washington, D.C., demonstrates this drama, which addresses such modern concerns such as dysfunctional families, dementia, and the lust for war and power, also transfers across time.  Indeed, this tragic drama is just as relevant today as when it was written some four-hundred years ago.

 In the play, the aging king of the play’s title is seeking to retire.  He foolishly elects to parcel out portions of his kingdom, with the best portion to be given to the daughter who loves him the most. Each daughter is called forth to profess her love for their father, but the first two daughters spin dramatic but insincere tales of their love — their intent being on monetary and property gain. The last daughter, Cordelia, is repelled by this insincerity and tells her father that she loves him only as her duty should require. The king, who in fact adores Cordelia, is infuriated by this plain-spoken reply and banishes both her and the Earl of Kent, who has taken up her cause. Lear then divides all the inheritances that would have been hers between the two evil sisters, starting a riveting tale of vanity, greed, and war, but also of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

What makes the Shakespeare Theatre Company production, directed by Simon Godwin, ground-breaking is its bold choice to use a modern setting, with the three sisters giving their speeches at public-relations podiums and Lear and other nobles in the play dressed as modern military dictators surrounded by ubiquitous nationalistic flags. The play’s staging effectively evokes a militaristic mood, employing airplane hangar doors as a backdrop to serve as everything from the king’s entrance from his plane to the walls of castles. Similarly, a wrecked airplane serves as the hovel in which Lear and a loyal few live in banishment, adding to the atmosphere of countries at war. These updates work well, serving to highlight both the timeliness and timelessness of the play, though this reviewer found Cordelia’s portrayal at one point as a triumphant airplane pilot returning to Britain from France to be a bit of a stretch. 

Patrick Page as King Lear. (Photo: DJ Corey Photography)

The acting is superb. Patrick Page is truly magnificent as King Lear, bringing out both the passion and pathos of the character — the king’s foolishness, his desire to live life to the fullest, his sadness at betrayal, his father-like care of his court fool (an excellent and humorous Michael Milligan), and finally his love for his estranged daughter Cordelia, played to great effect here by Cailen Fu. 

 Julian Elijah Martinez is an energetic Edmund, and Rosa Gilmore (as wicked sister Goneril) has mighty stage presence. Craig Wallace as Gloucester is impressive, conveying concern for Lear-the-man and pitying Lear-the-king’s foolish choices, even as he himself makes similarly poor choices in his own household. 

While the costumes and sets are both beautifully designed (by Emily Rebholz and Daniel Soule, respectively) and modern, the language is Shakespearean. Large projected titles appear above the stage to assist the audience in understanding changes in location, which are not always obvious from the dialogue. Also noteworthy are the show’s special effects, especially Lear’s famous scene in a raging tempest, as he describes the storm’s “all-shaking thunder” and bids it “strike flat the thick rotundity of the world,” both in a literal and metaphorical sense.  Lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew creates the right atmospherics in more somber and serious moments of the play, and composer Michael Bruce’s haunting music adds to the ambience of the performance.

The American Shakespeare Theatre’s King Lear is a stunning production which employs modern style and traditional language to depict both the devastating power of greed and the redemptive power of love. It is also a wonderful testimony to the power of Shakespeare and how his plots continue to provide insight into the events of today’s world.  The production runs through April 16, 2023, at the Klein Theatre in Washington, D.C. The show is most recommended for mature audiences due to sexual content and graphic violence.