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James Earl Jones gives a performance of awesome power and ferocity -- perhaps the greatest of his career. The sophistication and subtlety of his reading may surprise audiences unfamiliar with his work prior to his ubiquitous telephone company commercials. For the rest of us, this superb performance of a great artist at the height of his powers is cause for celebration, even as it is cause for sorrow: for here, too, is a stinging reminder of the scarcity of suitable roles for actors of Mr. Jones' refinement, technical mastery and colossal intensity. Are there no authors besides Shakespeare worthy of this extraordinary actor?
Of course, no one but a churl would begrudge Mr. Jones the comfort and pleasure his commercial success apparently brings him -- long may he prosper! Then again, who but a churl could fail to grieve at the waste of an artistic life of such immensity and grandeur?
After 4 weeks, I became fully convinced that anyone that said that they read or attended Shakespeare for entertainment purposes was either a liar or severely mentally unbalanced.
Then I was shown this production, and my mind expanded.
The production was taped from a Shakespeare in the Park festival, live. There are points during the production when it becomes apparent, yes it is live. It is also vital. It lives, it breathes, it is wildly passionate and elegent and bold and gentle, often within the space of one line to another.
The cast is nothing short of astonishing. Rosalind Cash, Raul Julia, Paul Sorvino and Rene Auberjonois are stunning. These four actors, in and of themselves, make this particular performance a (what is now the hyped phrase) Must See.
What makes it a Must Own is James Earl Jones.
Mr. Jones is, IMHO, possibly the single greatest actor living today. He is also IMHO the finest voice in the industry, and has been from the time I became aware that this production existed.
His Lear is a vain man, a proud man, and a man that is falling apart before our very eyes. He is indeed King, and a king that has brought himself low. Kingship does not imply wisdom.
Any flaws in this production only remind us that Shakespeare was once performed live in the presence of those who would hoot and toss things at the actors if the audience was not happy with what they were seeing.