King Lear, Act Four: “I am mightily abused. I should e’en die with pity/ To see another thus. I know not what to say.” Never did these lines seem more relevant than in last night’s production of King Lear, when the mighty John McEnery was reduced to reading these words to a paying audience from a script held in his hand. I had first thought, when he pulled the papers from his pockets (before the interval!) that it was some kind of joke upon the infirmity of Lear (McEnery prefaced it by saying “We only got four days rehearsal”), but as the show carried on and he continued to read from a clearly marked script, I realized it was simply the horrible, horrible truth: our lead had not learned his lines. As he sat cradling the dying Cordelia, McEnery’s eyes flicked back and forth from her face to the pages in his hands, and any ability to suspend disbelief was utterly ruined. There were pauses as he scanned the lines looking for his place and a feeling of tension caused by the fear that the other actors (especially the very fine Fool, Samuel Clifford) might knock the crumpled lump from his hands. I felt angry and bitter and so very, very sorry for the other actors. Stephen Connery-Brown (Earl of Gloucester) and Ludovic Hughes (Edgar) nearly had me in tears as they stood on the cliff tops of Dover: how could Lear let them down so badly? Why didn’t they just put a beard on Nicholas Finegan and let him get on with being the old man? He certainly didn’t need prompting for the Malachites’ Richard II.
Is it something special about this role? Just a month before it nearly killed Brian Blessed. Is it just too much for a really old actor to do? Should we be expecting Lears to collapse on or off stage from the effort the role requires? I thought when I saw Ian McKellan in it some years ago that it was supposed to represent the crown to a career, not a tombstone; but perhaps My Perfect Mind tells the story better – that this really is just an incredibly hard struggle for someone to maintain at the end of their (acting) life and it could be just too much for an old man to manage.
If McEnery gets his homework done right, this will be a good show; he captures the role better than Blessed did (a low bar but I’ll note the Bellowing Monarch never once needed a cue), and I hope for the sake of the Malachites’ upcoming run at the Rose that this does happen in short order. As for me, I would have walked out at the insult to me as an audience member, but I’d made a commitment to review the show, so sit through it I did (with my wonderfully cheap cup of Malachite tea after the interval). The space is lovely with good acoustics, its own disintegration capturing Lear’s crumbling mind; the costuming delightfully wintery (all fur and boots and capes); the two elder sisters joyously devolve, Edgar looks damn fine in a loincloth and mud, and the blankets took care of my coldness just fine. (I found Cordelia a bit wooden but she is hardly on stage enough to bother.) But there are some stage sins that cannot be forgiven; let us hope they are not repeated in the days to come.
(This review is for Wednesday, February 25th, which was nearly a full week since opening night and well long enough to get that script memorized no matter what excuses McEnery muttered. It continues through March 5th and then I was told is moving to the Rose theater April 7 through 30th.)