Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Get Thee Glass Eyes

Kevin Kline, sometimes dubbed "America’s Olivier," has valiantly tackled a series of Shakespearean roles in recent decades: a memorably melancholy Dane of a Hamlet in 1990 (after a previous effort in 1986), a dignified Nick Bottom in a muddled film Dream in 1999, a Sir John Falstaff still mindful of his status in 2003. Now, he has tackled the title role of King Lear for the Public Theater in New York and has been, almost predictably, savaged by most critics.

The "America’s Olivier" tag is unfortunate in itself. Kline has refined and retained a comic talent where Laurence Olivier gradually surrendered his – perhaps in the interest of maintaining an image as a serious artist even when appearing in admitted schlock. The tag is also unfortunate in that it makes Kline a target for would-be defenders of Shakespeare: if Kline fails to match a critic’s notion of Shakespeare, especially tragedy, the critic can accuse him of failing the Bard, rather than the preconception.

I will not be able to see Kline’s Lear, under the direction of James Lapine, so I cannot personally comment on the quality of his performance or the production. It would be helpful if the reviews, collectively, indicated whether or not this Lear succeeded on its own terms. But most of them offer no such help. The negative reviews of the Public Theater King Lear are depressingly similar in that each begins with the critic’s own sense of what the play is and must be.

I doubt that these same reviewers would insist that each conductor’s or soloist’s performance of a musical composition conform exactly to such a preconception; I doubt that they demand that every chef’s interpretation of a classic dish adhere to some "Continental" restaurant’s take on L’Escoffier. Somehow one of the fatal Cleopatras that Shakespeare irresistibly presents to many drama critics is imagined direct access to the playwright’s mind and intent.

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