The King Is a Thing: Shakespeare in New York City, 2007

Article excerpt

What do Shakespeare's kings mean to New York City today? It would be hard to gather any half-dozen major plays without featuring numerous monarchs at their centers, but this year's lineup, headlined by Lear and Hamlet, seems even more monarchical than one might have suspected. The line stretches out to the crack of doom: King Lear, Hamlet, Richard II, Macbeth, Cymbeline, Edward II. (These half-dozen shows don't include everything from New York in 2007, but it's a reasonably representative group.) It's as if our current national experience of watching a depleted but still powerful administration's final years were leeching out onto the stage, so that Shakespeare's portrayals of kings in crisis--mad Lear and murderous Claudius most obviously, but also impotent Cymbeline and lustful Edward II--have become allegories of how we represent power. But for all their broad-brush political relevance, these were fairly decorous productions, with few overt references to national events. What they represented, more directly and authoritatively, was theatrical power. The massive tragic parts at the center of these plays--in particular Ian McKellen's Lear, directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Trevor Nunn--showed our contemporary theatre measuring itself against theatrical, not political, history. What emerged was a series of attempts to fix Shakespearean kingship as a style, a performance, and a way of occupying center stage. To be a king in these terms is to rule the audience, to command its attention, and to insist on reverent obedience and applause.

The stand-out performances of the year were the RSC King Lear, which featured the reunion of Cambridge schoolmates Ian McKellen in the title role and Trevor Nunn directing, and the Wooster Group's Hamlet, which saw Elizabeth LeCompte's experimental troupe match its live actors against a digital remix of Richard Burton's legendary 1964 Broadway production, preserved on a rare film. In 2007, these two productions divided theatrical New York between them: the RSC Lear was showy and expressive, surrounding McKellen's athletic performance with Cossack costumes and some daring stage choices. (See Carolyn Sale's review of the touring show in this issue.) The Wooster Group's Hamlet, by contrast, deliberately alienated the audience, dividing our attention between Burton's flickering image on the screen and Scott Shepherd's jerky imitations and responses downstage. If McKellen's Lear embraced its own epic monumentality in its bid to take its place among the great performances of the role, LeCompte's Hamlet pre-emptively neutered many of the standard operations of theatre. What was finally most surprising, however, was that the Wooster Group's Hamlet still worked as melodrama, if not perhaps in quite the same way as the RSC Lear. These radically different productions reinforced the basic dramatic function of Shakespeare's kings as theatrical centering machines. No matter how hard these productions forced their monarchs into either a conventional or experimental framework, the king, eventually, stood alone. These figures produced images of that cultural, literary, and dramatic centrality of which Shakespeare himself, in whatever form, remains a potent symbol.

Around these two monumental and memorable productions, I've assembled a variety of other kings. Evan Yionoulis, the resident director of the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven, brought to Richard II something of early twenty-first century America's disillusion with the arts of power. A production of Macbeth by Beverly Bullock's Shakespeare NYC dressed its Scottish noblemen in the uniforms currently being worn by American soldiers in Iraq. The British troupe Cheek by Jowl brought their inventive Cymbeline to Brooklyn, where they unveiled the sexual temptation at the heart of this sometimes disorienting play. The Red Bull Theater's version of Marlowe's Edward II deployed erotically-charged performances by Marc Vietor as Edward and Matthew Rauch as Mortimer to show how the struggle over a kingdom got expressed through the deployment of personal and physical charisma. …