He's Every Inch a King; but Christopher Plummer Brings Lear Down to Earth

Newsweek, March 15, 2004 | Go to article overview

He's Every Inch a King; but Christopher Plummer Brings Lear Down to Earth


Byline: David Gates

If you don't listen to the audience, you're dead," says Christopher Plummer. "They react, and you use that and go with it." If you think this is just actor-y talk, you should have been at last Wednesday's matinee of "King Lear" at New York's Lincoln Center. Plummer had hit that scene where Lear has his fantasy of sneaking up on his traitorous sons-in-law: "Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!" Plummer usually delivers this line in a senile squeak; this time he roared it out as if he wanted to take somebody by the throat. "There was a lady on my right," he said afterward, "talking all the way through the show. Jesus Christ. So I was like, 'Kill! Kill!' I gave that to her."

Plummer, 76, is having the time of his life on that stage. He's got a master actor's technique--as his Captain von Trapp put it in "The Sound of Music," "the first rule of this household is discipline." But the freedom he grants himself to improvise in the moment helps turn the artifice real. Plummer's Mike Wallace in 1999's "The Insider" made the guy on "60 Minutes" look like an impersonator; his Lear seems less a performance than (in the king's own words) "the thing itself." This "Lear," mounted in Canada in 2002 and opening in New York last week, treats the play as what it truly is: a soap opera about family dysfunction. Plummer credits director Jonathan Miller for keeping it grounded ("He wanted to take the play off the cosmic level--that's so boring "), but it's Plummer's show. He gives Lear a crumbling grandiloquence and a palsied hand, and never lets us forget that Shakespeare's towering, tottering monarch is also "a big baby."

During his long stage career, Plummer had played Hamlet, Macbeth--but never Lear. "I thought, 'He kvetches so much, he deserves everything he gets'." He wanted to work with Miller in Ben Jonson's comedy "Volpone," but the director told him, "Before you croak you've got to try 'Lear.' It's one of the funniest plays ever written." Counterintuitive as this sounds--that onstage eye-gouging? …

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