Considering King Lear: Kline Road-Tests Part In Super-Secret Heath

070306 article ron Considering King Lear:  Kline Road Tests Part  In Super Secret Heathwas there at the double-super-secret rehearsal. And my reaction was: Do it, Kevin!

I would have kept silent if word hadn’t leaked (in Michael Riedel’s piece in the Post of June 23), about the secret rehearsal of King Lear the previous week, with Kevin Kline playing the mad king.

“[O]ff limits to all but a handful of Kline’s friends and Public Theater staffers,” it was done “‘just to see if Kevin was comfortable in the part,” according to one of Mr. Riedel’s sources, who implied it was an attempt to resolve Mr. Kline’s Hamlet-like indecision: to be or not to be Lear in a projected Public Theater production to be directed by James Lapine.

Although I’m not one of “Kline’s friends [or] a Public Theater staffer,” I did have the good fortune to be present at the secret rehearsal courtesy of Mr. Lapine, whose wife, the filmmaker Sarah Kernochan, is a longtime friend, and after the Post story made public some details, I got permission to write about my reaction to the unusual and revealing experience.

You could choose to be uncharitable and discount my opinion as a product of that friendship. Discount away. But let me say a word about Mr. Lapine and Shakespeare. As someone whose life was changed by seeing Peter Brook’s legendary Midsummer Night’s Dream, my standards are pretty high for productions of that play. And yet, in a lifetime of seeing stagings of the Dream, Mr. Lapine’s Central Park production in the early 80’s is the only one I’ve found worthy of mention in the same breath as Brook’s.

I missed his much-admired Winter’s Tale, but I mention his Dream because, although he’s known for high-end Broadway productions and collaborations with Sondheim, such as Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, I still remember the remarkable intelligence and clarity of his Shakespeare. Mr. Kline couldn’t have found a better collaborator.

And by the way, Mr. Kline’s inspired dandyish embodiment of Bottom in Michael Hoffman’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most underappreciated of his many Shakespearean roles. More important, of course, was his recent, remarkable Falstaff in Jack O’Brien’s Lincoln Center production of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He found the Lear in Falstaff, something I’d only seen Orson Welles (in his amazing Henry IV film Chimes at Midnight) accomplish before.

His Falstaff, like Lear, was a “foolish fond old man,” with all the tragic pathos of a cast-off clown.

And in the very opening moments of his Falstaffian portrayal, Mr. Kline demonstrated—the way he would at the secret rehearsal with the closing moments of his Lear portrayal—that he has a gift for capturing a Shakespearean character’s dramatic arc in nonverbal ways that raise the pitch of the drama to another level.

In the opening moments of his Falstaff, Mr. Kline made the very act of Falstaff trying to stand up a silent tragicomedy of the cumulative consequences of a life devoted to debauchery, the lardy burden of sin on the body of the fat knight as he struggled to hoist his huge bulk on creaky joints to a standing position upon awaking. It was comic, sad, pathetic and heroic—a compression of the arc of Falstaff’s character in the Henry IV plays into a hilarious nonverbal moment of drama. It was unforgettable. And his entire performance captured in its complexity the conflict between Samuel Johnson’s critique of Falstaff and Harold Bloom’s hagiography.

And in the secret Lear rehearsal, I saw enough to want to see Mr. Kline take arms against the sea of troubles playing Lear must represent to him—to any actor—and take on the challenge. Indeed, there was something I saw him do with Lear’s dying words I’d never seen done before.

I don’t know whose idea it was, Mr. Kline’s or Mr. Lapine’s, but it clinched my feeling that his was a serious investigation of one of the most recalcitrant, nigh-unto-impossible roles in Shakespeare. A feeling that, if Mr. Kline didn’t do it now, with this cast and this director, he might never find a better opportunity to take on the challenge.

Before I delve further into the matter of Lear’s last words, let me say a little bit more about the double-super-secret rehearsal. It took place in the small second-floor Anspacher Theater at the Public’s Lafayette Street locale. When I arrived just before a lunch break, Mr. Lapine and Mr. Kline were drawing chalk outlines on the small performance-space floor to plot out his position for the delivery of those dying words. With them was the luminously beautiful actress playing Cordelia (whose name, along with the rest of the cast, I have been asked not to disclose), a talented woman who’d done Shakespeare before and whose body Mr. Kline’s Lear was to stagger in with, howling with grief in the final moments of the play.

When the rehearsal began, I was surprised by how fluid and coherent it was, even though it had only been in preparation for 10 days. No costumes, no scenery, no props, no special lighting—indeed, many of the actors were still “on book” (that is, carrying around scripts with their lines), since they’d only begun learning the part little more than a week previously. But they knew what they were doing.

One thing about Lear: If it’s not done well, it can feel ponderous, and loooong. This one flew by, felt weighty without being ponderous.

SO SHOULD MR. KLINE TAKE THE ROLE? If not now, as my people say, when? One of the paradoxes of the role of Lear is that, although it’s about an octogenarian king, it’s the rare octogenarian actor who can bear the weight, much less carry Cordelia. And that thing he did with the dying words ….

I’ve been thinking about Lear’s dying words a lot lately. I devote a 40-page chapter to the controversy over the significance and source of the two versions of Lear’s last words in my forthcoming book (The Shakespeare Wars). And recently, I had the privilege of being on the same stage as a great Shakespearean actor, Richard Easton, a distinguished past member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, as he delivered stunning renditions of each of the two versions of Lear’s death scene.

The circumstances were a Shakespeare Society evening at Hunter’s Kaye Playhouse, in which three of us—Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, director Mark Lamos and I—were each given access (by Shakespeare Society artistic director Michael Sexton) to a team of talented actors to present our own meditation on Shakespearean genius (in addition to Mr. Easton, the actors included Steven Skybell, Linda Emond and Ginnifer Goodwin).

In any case, I focused my segment on the two versions of Hamlet’s last words and the two versions of Lear’s last words. You know the different versions of Lear’s dying words, right? There are two early printed texts of Lear, a 1608 Quarto and a 1623 Folio version. A virtual civil war has erupted among textual scholars over the question. Did Shakespeare revise the Quarto—was it, in effect, his first draft—or are the two versions both imperfect descendants of a single “Lost Archetype”?

Much discussion focuses on the differences in last words. Almost nobody does the 1608 version of the last words, because the 1623 version of Lear’s final utterances consists of two of the most beautiful and haunting lines in all of Shakespeare.

In the early Quarto, Lear dies holding the body of Cordelia and crying out, “Break, heart, I prithee, break.” Deeply affecting, but rarely played because, to most, these words pale in comparison with the Folio version of the dying words.

In the final moments of the play (and his life), in both versions, Lear has sought for some signs of life in Cordelia, first by holding a feather up to her lips to see if any breath will stir it. Seeing none, at first he seems to give up hope—and, in the Quarto, gives up the ghost. But then, in the Folio, he suddenly exclaims:

“Do you see this? Look on her! Look her lips, / Look there, look there.”

And then he dies.

To some—myself among them—these are two of the most profoundly resonant lines in all Shakespeare. Two of the most mysterious lines as well. They seem to imply that Lear has seen signs of the breath of life still escaping from Cordelia’s lips.

What are we to make of Lear’s final Folio utterance? Is it a redemptive final communion with his daughter, in his last moments of life, leading him to believe she’s survived and that such survival “redeems all sorrows”?

Or is it a sad, deluded, final flare-up of his madness that makes his death bleaker, a final deluded folly more tragic than redemptive. The problem for scholars is that there is no assurance that the new version of the last words was written by Shakespeare, no matter how “Shakespearean” they sound. The Folio was published seven years after his death, after all—and it’s not impossible the dying words were added by an actor or company playwright.

Nonetheless, the Folio last words—“Look her lips … ”—have become Shakespearean by incorporation. Every production of Lear I’ve seen does them instead of the Quarto’s “Break, heart, I prithee, break.” They deepen the mystery—and not only of whether Lear is finally redemptive or finally an emblem of bleak madness

They also deepen the mystery of whether Shakespeare was a revising artist who consciously decided to “improve” his original version of Lear’s death. At the Shakespeare Society, Mr. Easton made both versions of the dying words powerful and heartbreaking. And I may never get over the terrible beauty of his entrance, howling. His howls still ring in my ears and curdle the blood.

But Kevin Kline did something different. Something audacious, something I’d never seen done with the Folio last words. Maybe he’ll never do it again; maybe he’ll discard it when—and if—he undertakes Lear. And so I’ll draw the curtain here and not describe it explicitly, except to say it was a nonverbal gesture that—like his nonverbal opening for his Falstaff—defined in a thrilling way his final vision of Lear.

This is not to slight the level of his performance up to that moment. One felt that he was still investigating, and one wanted him to bring the weight of his fine actor’s intelligence to every one of Lear’s lines. But he had already come to a stunning yet refined way of doing the final words.

I’d never seen it done that way before, and I may never see it done that way again—and yet I’ll never forget it.