Whether 1606 or 1906, Bad Leadership Brings Bad Results


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


King Lear
Shakespeare and Company
Kemble Street
Lenox, Massachusetts

Dennis Krausnick as King Lear.

Director Rebecca Holderness, like many directors, wanted to give William Shakespeare’s King Lear a modern look, so she set it in 1906 Russia. She did so because Russia’s leader, Tsar Nicholas II, was floundering as the head of his country and opposition was growing -- which would eventually culminate in the Russian Revolution and the death of not only Nicholas, but his entire family (Anastasia included). Holdneress's gamble works. Nicholas’s poor decisions and leadership brought about a revolution and the end of the Romanov line. Lear’s decisions did the same thing.

Holderness’s production of King Lear at Shakespeare and Company, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, is a solid one, with shadows of brilliance here and there. It features an absolutely mesmerizing, towering performance by Dennis Krausnick as the old, frazzled, troubled Lear. All eyes are riveted on him from the moment the thin, bearded monarch makes a blustery royal entrance to the night that he wanders through England/Russia, battered and in rags, intent on finding his daughter Cordelia and salvation for himself. Krausnick rages across the stage, flings himself on the ground, flails and wails and is a volcano of frustration and desperation. He is just titanic. It has to be one of the best Shakespearean performances of this year.

The story of King Lear is familiar to Shakespeare lovers, but here in the Berkshires there is more of a political emphasis than in most theaters. It is clear that the King makes a ridiculous decision when he splits his kingdom three ways amongst his three daughters. The egocentric Lear then disowns daughter Cordelia, his favorite, because she refuses to publicly tell everyone how much she loves him, as her sisters do when the King demands it (they are, of course, lying). Cordelia winds up in France, missing her father and trying everything she can to help him. Lear winds up shaken and depressed.

The Earl of Gloucester, the father of the vicious Edmund and the loyal Edgar, stand by his King when his two daughters, Goneril and Regan, immediately rebel against him and plot to kill him. He does everything he can to find and save the King, unaware of his own son’s plan to depose him. The Fool sticks with Lear, too, and is his accomplice through his harrowing nightmare journey to find his daughter Cordelia.

Lear’s journey makes him human. He quickly loses his regal clothes and wanders through a battered England/Russia, practically naked when his journey ends. As a man, and not a king, he sees things that he could not see from his throne, as all leaders do. He is helped by some, treated shabbily by others. He rages and weeps at his inability to achieve very much, when as a king he had to simply snap his fingers to get whatever he wanted. On his surreal trip he is but a sad shadow stumbling about in a dark night.

The two daughters to whom he gave his kingdom not only turn against him, but against their husbands and lovers. One starts an adulterous affair with the surly Edmund, son of Gloucester. The other leads a group of men in a severe, and wonderfully staged, torture of Gloucester, a bloody beating so severe that he loses his eyesight (and can see blind better than he could see with his vision, Shakespeare says).

In the end, his daughters’ plans all go awry after a major battle to determine whether or not Lear will keep his throne. His armies, with the help of the French armies under Cordelia and her lover, the King of France, battle the armies of his daughters and their men. Then events take an odd turn.

Was King Lear mad and did that cause the trauma? From the moment he walks on stage, you can tell that he is an angry leader. He gets worse. Yet, at many moments in the three-hour story, he is kind and tender. Was he simply a very old man, as he says, who aged badly? As an old man, did he make a very poor decision, to split up his kingdom, not thinking what consequences that would bring? Was he just a tired king, fed up with everything and trying to win the love of his daughters by giving them his country? Or was he very much like Nicholas II, a weak man and a weak leader who just assumed everything would turn out all right in the end, no matter what decisions he made?

The 1906 Russian setting works because it makes you think of political discord. Directors always pull Shakespeare into the present, and rightly so, to compare his stories to contemporary tales. If Lear was wrong to make one huge decision to split his kingdom, was Syria’s President Assad wrong when he made one huge decision to kill thousands of rebels opposed to his regime and never give in to their demands? Will Assad, like Lear, lose all in the end?

King Lear is also an insightful story about families and their troubles, no matter what the nation or what the century. How do you best deal with them? How do parents hold on to a child’s love without buying it? How do brothers and sisters get along without battling each other? How does a single parent, such as Lear, deal with grown daughters? Sons? Do you cast out a child because the child, in one area, does not do what you want them to do, while in other areas she is a model daughter?

In the end, the tragedy of King Lear is that he was neither a good father nor a good leader and never understood that. He did not listen to aides or his daughters and made rash decisions for family and country. He never took his time before deciding something. The great skills of leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, is that they always gave themselves plenty of time to decide what to do, after much advice from aides. Lear never did that. The play is instructive in what to do and not to do as a father and a national leader. The consequences of one bad decision, in Lear’s case, are enormous.

All of that is evident in this superb production of King Lear at Shakespeare and Company. It has its weaknesses. The last half of the first act moves along at a snail’s pace. At times, the story becomes too complicated. It is hard to figure out The Fool’s psychology.

But, overall, director Holderness did a fine job staging King Lear. It is a long and complex play and, for the most part, she has captured Shakespeare’s magic. She did wonders working with a spartan set and a thrust stage that is surrounded by the audience on three sides. Her performers move on and off the stage smoothly and she manages to build scenes very nicely (the scene of Gloucester about to hurl himself off a high cliff is vivid).

Holderness gets fine acting throughout, primarily from Kevin Coleman (The Fool), Jonathan Croy (Gloucester), Jonathan Epstein (Earl of Kent), Kelly Galvin (Cordelia), Corinna May (Goneril), Kristin Wold (Regan), Peter Macklin (Edmund), Ryan Winkles (Edgar), Bill Watson (Duke of Cornwall). The rest of the cast is strong.

PRODUCTION: Produced by Shakespeare and Company. Sets: Sandra Goldmark; Costumes: Govane Lohbauer; Lighting: Matthew E. Adelson; Sound: Peter Bayne; Fight Choreography: Michael F. Toomey. The play is directed by Rebecca Holderness.

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