King Lear
Patrick Page and Michael Milligan in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s King Lear; Credit: DJ Corey Photography

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Instead of counting down the days until the final season of HBO’s Succession starts, consider filling the time with the original version of that story. William Shakespeare’s King Lear is currently onstage at Shakespeare Theatre Company in a spectacular production, taut and tense, starring Patrick Page in a magnificent performance. An overbearing, elderly father. Ungrateful and unruly adult children. A vast empire that everyone wants to run. Twists and turns, and knives in backs. Check, check, check, and check. Unlike Lear’s family, the Roys, as of yet, haven’t plucked out any eyeballs. 

Because of its familial discord themes and familiar issues ranging from eldercare to sibling rivalry, the play has always felt more universal than Hamlet (no ghosts, less incest). It is, however, exceedingly hard to stage well—from the demands on the actor playing Lear, to confusing, repetitive subplots, to an attempted suicide, which becomes bathetic if not handled with grace. Under the expert direction of STC Artistic Director Simon Godwin, who trimmed the run-time down to just over two hours, this King Lear is contemporary, operatic, and unforgettable. 

Designed by Daniel Soule, the industrial set of metal walls transforms from hangars to high end lofts, then from a hostile wilderness to military camps with Jeanette Yew’s effective lighting design. Christopher Shutt’s swelling score moves us seamlessly through various locales. But it is a set—no matter where the action is taking place—that purposely remains cold and distant, creating an authoritarian, military state ruled by a family dynasty. In contrast, that the production is onstage in STC’s smaller Klein Theatre allows for a deeper intimacy: We are pulled into this glamorous, nasty world where we experience the domestic tragedies all the more deeply. 

The plot begins with a case of not-so-quiet quitting. Lear asks his three daughters to publicly declare their love for him and he will award them each with one-third of his kingdom. The two eldest—vixenish Goneril (Rosa Gilmore) and venomous Regan (Stephanie Jean Lane)—rise to the challenge; poor Cordelia (Lily Santiago), the youngest, refuses to play such games and is exiled. After Lear splits the kingdom between two of the three siblings, he professes his wish to keep all the perks of the job without the stress. Gilmore and Lane have a lot of fun as the two savage sisters, slinking around in garish leather and fur ensembles designed by Emily Rebholz and playing their wicked games, while Santiago has a quiet fortitude and grace in her brief scenes as Lear’s savior. Goneril and Regan slowly peck away at Lear’s dignity until they abandon him with nothing, save a few loyal friends, in a deadly storm. 

Page gives a perfect performance as the title character. He is a virile Lear, all swagger and fur-lined coats when he’s playing the monarch or hunting with the guys. But we see small signs of his mental and physical instability—a slight head nod, a quick tremor in the hand. Maybe it is not so good to be the king, his body says even as his words tell us otherwise. As Lear descends into madness and rages into a storm, only Page with his basso profundo voice could outbellow the thunderclaps. When he reunites with the daughter he exiled, Page’s most powerful tool, that glorious earthquaking voice, becomes softer, gentler as he is restored to his senses by Cordelia’s kindness. 

Lily Santiago, Stephanie Jean Lane, and Rosa Gilmore in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s King Lear; Credit: DJ Corey Photography

And in the final scene—the most heartrending in Shakespeare’s tragedies—Page howls like an animal as he carries Cordelia’s lifeless body. Words fail the matter: Life is capricious, cruel, and meant for beasts, not for men and, especially, not for good daughters. 

Shakespeare doubles the plot of Lear with the tragedy of Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund—showing that paternal pressures and filial impiety aren’t reserved for the ruling class. Edmund (a devilishly charismatic Julian Elijah Martinez) plots his own father’s downfall and seduces both wicked queens-to-be, while Edgar (Matthew J. Harris) is the good son falsely accused of said misdeeds. Harris plays a nebbish Edgar disguised as a gutter punk after he is exiled, peeling back layers of deep sorrow as he interacts with both his blinded father and demented godfather, Lear. Craig Wallace offers a beautiful performance as Gloucester: loyal to his king, mistrusting of his own children, and still misruled by his own appetites. He is both boorish and sympathetic, yet fully human. 

This, then, is no country for old men. Lear and Gloucester are both brutally undone by their ambitious children, but (sorry, boomers) neither are exactly father-of-the-year material. Gloucester introduces Edmund with a series of profane jokes about his mother. And when Lear’s rowdy entourage ruins Goneril’s well-ordered home and she insists they leave, he spits vitriol at her. As Goneril, Gilmore physically wilts as Lear curses her with infertility, and we see a glimpse of a father-daughter relationship likely wrought by such emotional abuse. 

This kingdom is a nasty place to be, but there are glimmers of goodness. Michael Milligan as Lear’s Fool comforts the king and diverts his troubled mind with riddles that all gently point Lear to confront his own foolishness. It’s a subdued take but effective, making his own pointless death all the more poignant. Likewise, Shirine Babb is excellent as Lear’s loyal advisor Kent. Their warmth, dedication, and selflessness counter the wickedness of others, but almost to no avail. 

The final moments of the play are nothing less than apocalyptic. And though the spoilers are 400 years old, we won’t give the whole ruinous ending away. On opening night, there were gasps, sobs, and sniffles during this tragic denouement. Suffice it to say, fight choreographer Robb Hunter should be lauded for staging so much violence. The worst horror is that even those loyal, good men left to pick up the pieces have learned nothing from all of the bloodshed.

History may be doomed to repeat itself and we may have Succession starting at the end of the month, but a production of Lear of this caliber is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Pack the tissues, but do not miss this superb production of one of Shakespeare’s most difficult tragedies. 

Following three extensions, King Lear, directed by Simon Godwin, now runs through April 16 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre. $35–$190.