The headlines really tell the story on this one. Colleen Kennedy of The Washington City Paper
proclaims that "King Lear Blows Audiences Away"; Bob Ashby says that, "Anchored by Patrick Page’s performance in the title role, director Simon Godwin’s production is one of the peak theatrical experiences of a lifetime" in his DC Theatre Arts review "Shakespeare Theatre delivers a breathtaking ‘King Lear’"; and theWashington Post boasts that "This 'King Lear' might be the best our theatre critic [Peter Marks] has ever seen."
So, naturally, I was skeptical. Headlines this resoundingly glowing strike me as potentially elitist; after all, they're reflecting on a Shakespeare production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC, featuring a renowned actor. This is the kind of production one is "supposed" to adore - an experience that is meant to be transformative based on the romantic notions of Shakespearean theatre and "culture" invented in the eighteenth-century. And I'm ornery to my core, so I'm inclined to be snide ... despite my own romantic love of Shakespearean theatre.
With that chip firmly balanced on my shoulder I accompanied Dr. S to the March 8 performance. And within minutes I was entranced.
I got it.
Patrick Page's King Lear is phenomenal. It's no exaggeration to say that he blows audiences away, and that his performance may be the best anyone has seen. His voice is rich and affective as he delivers a range of emotions from fury to joy to heartache. His bearing is regal and commanding, but as Lear's security dissolves Page introduces ticks of age and weariness that emphasize the frailty and humanity of the character. He's charismatic and magnetic, from his greatest follies in powers to his final pitiful moments. Page's performance is so strong that Dr. S
and I left wondering how he managed such a nuanced performance. Dr. S suggested that Page may be a career Shakespearean actor along the line of Nate Dendy, who, as of January 2023, has played Ariel in The Tempest 250 times. (On December 27, 2022 we had the opportunity to see Dendy in the Folger Theatre's production of The Tempest at Round House theatre, with magic direction by Teller. We still talk about Dendy's Ariel as the highlight of the show.)
The set director (Daniel Soule) and costume designer (Emily Rebholz) likewise deserve accolades. The hangar that makes up Lear's world sets the tone for the production, adding weight with its starkness, and denying the characters most human comforts. When such comforts are presented - in the living rooms of the elite - they're cheapened by their showiness and emphasize the insincerity of the characters themselves. Similarly, Lear's uber patriarchal masculinity is driven home by his furs and trappings, and his decline is made all the more poignant as his finery is stripped away. By contrast, the loud, brash fashions of Regan and Goneril strongly reflect their characters, pulling on stock characterization to develop the manipulative daughters.
Much more so than the actors themselves. Because, while the headlines do well to celebrate
Page's performance, he carries the weight of a lackluster production on his fur-wrapped shoulders. Broadly, the supporting cast of Lear is not up to the standards I've come to expect from STC. Rosa Gilmore as Goneril was particularly wooden and difficult to watch. Matthew Harris was engaging as Edgar, and Julian Martinez made for a compelling Edmund, but overall the performances were underwhelming.
Until Page took stage, and enchanted the audience once again.