It is rare that an evening of theater ends with the audience breathless, weeping or paralyzed by depth of emotion. But such is the case at the BAM Harvey Theater, where Sir Derek Jacobi currently stars in the Donmar production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, directed with passion and energy by Michael Grandage.
King Lear is often best enjoyed between the pages of a book rather than onstage simply because it is such a difficult play to mount sympathetically. Is the text ultimately positive … or negative? Is it a great tragedy that ends on a triumphant note? Or a view into a dark cosmos where humanity is little more than sport for the gods?
Difficult, too, is the characterization of Lear himself. Too often he is played in a ponderous manner, as if he were plowing into an earth all too ready to consume him. The success of King Lear ultimately rests on the performance of the title role. Jacobi leads a mostly excellent cast, and provides one of the most vivid, human and sympathetic performances I have seen in a lifetime of theater going.
Jacobi’s Lear is surprisingly light on his feet – no aged titan crawling into his grave. Instead, his Lear is more of a pettish child, full of offended sensibilities and flying into tantrums over wounded dignity. When his Lear cries, “Where is my food?!” he seems more graybeard toddler than dignified patriarch. This is a perfectly valid reading of the part; Lear is a victim not only of murderous relatives, but of his own childish behavior.
Jacobi’s masterstroke is that his approach provides great opportunities for shades of characterization. His two mad scenes are played counter-intuitively. On the moors and pelted by the elements, Jacobi whispers to us rather than howls. Later, met by the now blind Gloucester (the deeply affecting Paul Jesson), he dances around his subject, marveling at the absurdities of life.
But it is perhaps at the close, his sanity restored, that Jacobi is at his most magnificent, and his Lear most human. Creeping into consciousness, recognizing Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner), he is all too frail, all too vulnerable and completely heartbreaking. “I am old and foolish,” he mutters, creating a world of feeling with a simple line of dialogue.
Perhaps the ultimate secret of Jacobi’s Lear is simply the inner core of the actor himself. Derek Jacobi has always subtly emerged from behind an air of quiet decency. Even when playing villains, his persona is that of a soft-spoken, kindly man, rather than the epic, larger-than-life performer that usually attracts Lear. King Lear only works as a play if one believes him capable of inspiring the love of Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester and the Fool. Jacobi is the first performer I’ve seen who has been able to make this key component utterly believable.
Which returns us to one of our central questions – does Shakespeare make an optimistic statement with King Lear, or a pessimistic one? Grandage, working with a bare stage, does not short-shrift the tragedy of the play. Indeed, the blinding of Gloucester is one of the most horrific set-pieces I’ve ever seen on stage. But I believe this production is ultimately one which lands on the side of optimism. Jacobi’s Lear is a figure of transcendent humanity and depth of feeling. Indeed, when he believes the hanged Cordelia may be returning to life, it is possible that Jacobi’s Lear dies of joy. Without removing a stitch of clothing, Jacobi is often completely naked.
Much of the cast is uniformly excellent. Gwilym Lee is wonderful as Edgar. Often overshadowed by the more showy part of Edmund, Edgar is the more difficult in that he must make privation and his education in humanity believable prior to becoming monarch at play’s end. Lee’s diction is superb and he brings a welcome physicality to the role.
Alec Newman is less successful as Edmund. It is a spirited performance, but Edmund, incapable of love or human feeling, must be a figure of evil urbanity. Newman misses the silky, cruel cunning necessary to make Edmund truly captivating.
However, Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell are magnificent as Goneril and Regan, respectively. Both have an electrifying presence, and each commands the stage with regal disdain. These, too, are difficult parts, and in inexpert hands, Goneril and Regan come off as villains in an Agatha Christie play (think Diana Rigg in her disastrous turn under Oliver’s Lear). Both McKee and Mitchell create haunting, brutal, and bewitching sisters.
The same cannot be said for Pippa Bennett-Warner, who is colorless as Cordelia. Where Cordelia must be transcendent, loving and saintly, Bennett-Warner is simply business-like. Her only effective moment comes when she plays a corpse.
Michael Hadley (Kent), Ron Cook (the Fool), and Tom Beard (Albany) all deliver expert performances. However, something must be said about Gideon Turner’s Cornwall. Turner provides perhaps the most amateurish performance I’ve ever seen on a professional stage. His look and affect remind one of Keanu Reeves at this most sedated. Bill and Ted Do Lear might make an amusing parody, but his casting is inexplicable in a production so marvelous.
But the problems with the production are mere quibbles compared to the enormity of its achievement. During Jacobi’s death scene, there were audible gasps from the audience, and tears flowed readily. After the lights dimmed, the play was met with (well-deserved) thunderous applause. During his bows, Jacobi seemed visibly shaken and moved by his experience; he has lived Lear rather than played him. The crowd would not stop its standing ovation until he came out yet a third time, at which point, near tears, he humbly blew a kiss in gratitude. It felt like a benediction.
This is a King Lear not to be missed.