King Lear in Brooklyn Reviews

The Stage, 9th May 2016, Susan Elkin

Anyone who has read Antony Sher’s Year of the King and Year of the Fat Knight will know how well actors’ day-to-day accounts of getting into a great role can work. Michael Pennington’s account of playing King Lear in New York in 2014 - now reprised for a 2016 UK tour is another memorable contribution to the genre - it ranges across researching the role, talking to Ian McKellen, reflections on earlier interpretations, the development of the play and the everyday challenges faced by an actor away from home. He is often funny and always intelligent, congenial company. He also writes accessibly and without pretension, as his earlier, delightful Sweet William: 20,000 Hours with Shakespeare (Nick Hern Books, 2012) showed too, I doubt that you’ll find more feet-on-the-boards information about, and insights into, the Lear role in any other single volume.

British Theatre Guide, 25th April 2016, Philip Fisher

There are about half a dozen good reasons to buy and delight in this charming tome, which covers a production of King Lear at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience aka TFANA.

For actors and directors, it provides a detailed analysis of the thoughts of this particular King Lear and everyone involved in the production, on a week by week basis through rehearsals to opening and beyond.

The general reader will also possibly learn more about the arts of acting, directing and working in the design departments of an American theatre than ever before.

The depiction of rivalry between two King Lears playing across a highway from each other (Frank Langella was filling the role at BAM) may be a little bit of a damp squid but it does demonstrate that against British public perception, Shakespeare does still have a place on the far side of the Atlantic.

For lovers of Michael Pennington, there is a partial biography and memoir, along with the actor/author’s philosophical opinions about so much more than his own life.

Outside the theatre, readers can enjoy a portrayal of modern day New York along with a brief essay on high-tech fraud as it affects the star on the street.

To add variety to the mix, one chapter analyses each of Lear’s eleven scenes in detail, while there is also a friendly interview between the author and his old friend Sir Ian McKellen.

The real core of King Lear in Brooklyn is a multi-layered portrait of one of Shakespeare’s most memorable and significant characters, along with the experience of those involved inputting him on stage in a brand new building that any visitor to New York is strongly advised to go and see.

By the end, readers will have a deep understanding of a veteran actor’s life while playing one of the greatest roles in theatre and at the same time enjoy the relationship that he builds with American colleagues and particularly the theatre’s founding father Jeffrey Horowitz and the play’s adventurous young director Arin Arbus.

This is a very well-written and balanced book that analyses one of Shakespeare’s major plays from numerous perspectives, while proving to be a good read at the same time.

While each theatrical performance and production is unique, it just so happens that Michael Pennington is currently touring a different version of King Lear around the United Kingdom, which could at least give Brits a flavour of what went on in Brooklyn.

The Times Literary Supplement, 21st April 2017, Katherine Duncan-Jones


King Lear in Brooklyn shows the actor Michael Pennington to be a as generous and good-humoured a player offstage as he is on, despite some distinctly challenging encounters with the icy streets of New York. Shouted at from an upstairs window, Pennington finds himself “within fifty yards of home, felled by a proud lip of paving stone”. As well as being extremely painful, the fall took him completely by surprise, even though “a lifetime of falling down dead in the line of professional duty has left me aero-dynamically quite sound”. At night, too, New York’s physical environment put Pennington’s good humour to the test as he struggled with the “nocturnal clanking of radiators” in his apartment - “Still troubled by the radiators hissing noise at 3 a.m.”. Towards the end of six and a half weeks of rehearsals, in the spring of 2014 (when there were several other major productions of the play), Pennington finally moved to a different, airier flat - which proved to have radiators that were equally noisy.

Yet there is no note of complaint here - only witty good-humoured amusement. As the rehearsals rolled on, Pennington discovered with relief that “I find the fluency I though I’d lost”. One unusual fascination of King Lear in Brooklyn is its blend of the mysterious ancientness of Lear with this production’s austere and hyper-modern setting TFANA, New York’s Theatre For A New Audience. Given generous time and dedication, Pennington adjusted himself sensitively to the play’s young woman director, Arin Arbus, a richly variegated cast and the still-in-progress structure of the about-to-open theatre space. With typical generosity, Pennington allowed every performer a voice in the ensuing book of the production. It is fascinating for what it tells us both about a hyper-modern rendition of Lear and about a wide variety of effective routes into the text.

A logistical problem arose in the final scene, one which quite often arises in modern production of Lear. Cordelia is performed by a splendid grown woman, Lilly Englert, who could not physically be carried on stage by the septuagenarian Pennington. It is, of course, important not to raise a laugh at this point, as I suspect Henry Irving may have done occasionally when he trundled the dead Cordelia on stage in a wheelbarrow. But in a practical solution was eventually discovered, and it doesn’t appear to have provoked laughter in TFANA:

….a long piece of black masking tape would be hung behind the back row of the central block, with a gap in the middle to allow for a clear route down the runway… you might have assumed the Lear was … crawling on his belly like a serpent.

As a whole, King Lear in Brooklyn chronicles an actor’s varied and fascinating responses to a major and often problematic play, as with Michael Pennington’s earlier books about Hamlet and Twelfth Night. His openness and generosity evidently set the tone for the whole cast.

Pennington has already contributed a brief account of his “American” Lear to Jonathan Croall’s wide-ranging study, Performing King Lear, where it takes it’s place among a wealth of accounts of the play ……


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