Last week, Ira Glass, the host of This American Life on public radio, saw John Lithgow command the role of King Lear on the stage of the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park. [Read portions of Lithgow's blog on preparing for the role here.] Afterwards Glass lauded the performance, but took a swipe at the playwright. In a tweet he has since removed from his twitter feed, he wrote:
Before anyone could followup on her tweeted request and draft a re-work, Beckett took it on. Over as series of several tweets, Beckett’s Glassian/AmericanLife-ish reimagining of the fateful story of Lear as a TAL episode is told with perfect cadence and spot-on mimicry of style.
Glass followed up his first tweet about Lear with a quick punch to the gut for those of us who loved the Shakespeare’s Globe productions of Richard III and (especially) Twelfth Night – the hottest ticket on Broadway last season.
Anyone who has spoken to me since I saw those productions last fall knows that I rave about them. Actor Mark Rylance was a revelation as Olivia in Twelfth Night, and he gave Richard III personality ticks that made you — if not necessarily empathize with him — get a sense of where the vile impulse to murder and deceive came from.
I don’t know what Glass means about Shakespeare not being relatable (even he recanted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying he couldn’t likely defend his proposition). In each of the Bard’s plays, I find lots to relate to — families, friendships, jealousies, enemies, life and death are pretty universal stuff among our species. And talk about stakes! I’ve seen five productions of Lear in the past six years, and each has touched me, and each in a different way. Even though I know it’s coming, the death of Cordelia always crushes me. And I wince and writhe in my chair every time Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out.
From left: Sam Gregory as Henry IV, Benjamin Bonenfant as Prince Hal and Steven Cole Hughes as the Earl of Worcester in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of Henry IV part 1. photo: Colorado Shakespeare Festival
It’s pretty clear I don’t think Shakespeare sucks. In fact, just this weekend, I ticked off two more productions I’ve seen on the list of his 37 plays. I caught a solid performance of Henry IV Part 1 at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder at a Sunday matinee (with a stuffed and swaggering Timothy Winters as Falstaff — a veteran in the role — and a believable/relatable and evolving Hal embodied in the promising young Benjamin Bonenfant). Then I saw the festival’s revelatory “Original Practices” production of the second part of Henry IV that evening. It was performed as an Elizabethan troupe might do it — no director, little rehearsal, no lighting cues, original instruments playing period music. I managed to snag a front row seat for that performance, which had actors directly addressing me. One even asked me to hold a line of caution tape that served as a neutral boundary between the King’s son and a rebel leader.
With both Henrys IV off the list, that makes 34 of 37 that I’ve seen (two of which I’ve also performed in). The last three: the seldom performed three parts of Henry VI.