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King Lear

In the Service of Jacobi’s King Lear

Donmar Warehouse,BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, N.Y.
May 15, 2011, Seats B–107&108 (second row center orchestra)
Directed by Michael Grandage

The epochal power of King Lear comes first in the reunion of the old king and his once-banished youngest daughter, and then too soon after in the distraught king bringing that dead daughter on stage before pitiably dying himself. Any production succeeds when it opens the tear ducts here, and based on the loud sobbing and sniffling in the audience at this performance, this Lear succeeded. Meanwhile, for this lover of Lear who has seen many a great actor in the role, this production unveiled many facets of the play I’d never seen before. Ironically—and surprisingly—its successes as powerful theater and great Shakespearean art did not spring from the same source.

The former came courtesy of Derek Jacobi. So accessibly human was his Lear we’d know him at any World War II reunion or retirement center today. It was easy to be bemused at his enforcing shows of affection from his daughters (including insisting they kiss him on the cheek before proceeding with their protestations of love), with his dancing delight at the Fool’s jokes, and even in his utterly mad scene with the blind Gloucester (Paul Jesson). It was easy to feel uncomfortable watching Lear fly into rages at the slightest slight. It was easy to tense as we watched him tip into madness in the storm. It was inevitable that we would weep at the end.

Throughout his illustrious career, Jacobi has carved a reputation for taking Shakespeare’s most famous speeches and imbuing them with fresh yet textually relevant readings. In that light we waited in anticipation for his storm scene—which he delivered anticlimactically in a whisper. Yes, a whisper. The storm and Fool did a freeze-frame stop as Lear slipped into “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks…” as if it were his silent meditations rather than a public meltdown on the heath. Whatever textual relevance inspired Jacobi to this choice of delivery was lost on me.

Instead, Lear’s “Reason not the need” speech became the role’s centerpiece lines, calling on an argument that he as king would have casually dismissed and, as the speech transpired, noting his utter lack of authority and his physical—and mental—feebleness. This was the moment that truly set this Lear onto the path of breakdown. Later, when he and Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner) were taken prisoner, the wiser and calmer, mentally restored king consoles his Cordelia with Shakespeare’s most touching speech. From the tongue of Jacobi, “We two alone will sing like birds i’th’cage” was a song itself, the notes tripping through the air on “gilded butterflies.”

In this production, Lear’s was a domestic tragedy: a doddering patriarch whose pride and encroaching confusion created a rift with one daughter while his other daughters and one son-in-law (Cornwall, played with agitated malice by Gideon Turner) only want to rid themselves of the bother he has become and get on with their own play. Meanwhile, the political drama waged around him, with Lear totally oblivious to it. The bridge between the two was Kent. As played by Michael Hadley, Kent was obviously a longtime family friend, wholly devoted to Lear. In the opening scene, Kent watched the family pageant unfold with a look of familial pride until Lear’s sudden detour into rage (Kent even seemed to approve Cordelia’s initial stance, only turning concerned when he saw Lear’s reaction). Throughout the play Kent in disguise kept a constant eye out for Lear, and he again displayed an aspect of pride and comfort when Lear and Cordelia reunited. The final scene’s tragedy, then, was as much Kent’s as Lear’s, as the king died in his arms and a devastated Kent saw his own death as his only course.

It was in the political drama that director Michael Grandage elevated this King Lear to landmark status, starting with the Chistopher Oram set of peeled-paint wood planks for the floor and walls that, under changing lights, became a barren heath or hard, stone walls. Of the sisters, it was Regan (Justine Mitchell) who proved the more powerful force, a political manipulator smiling when necessary but letting her greed, her ego, and even her hate for her father erupt at key and convincing moments. “I gave you all—” Lear starts: “And in good time you gave it,” Regan roared, cutting him off. Albany, too, was given his proper due in this production. No drunkard or sop, as his wife and servant describe him, Tom Beard’s Albany was careful, studied, and increasingly bold. His steady performance led up to the golden moment when he publicly revealed Edmund’s plot and barred his sister-in-law’s claim to the newly minted Duke of Gloucester “in the interest of my wife.” “I, her husband, contradict your banns,” Albany told Regan, and then with devastating cynicism, “If you will marry, make your loves to me; my lady is bespoke.” Gina McKee as Goneril was stiff and reserved, coming undone (literally) only in her semiprivate moment with Edmund (Alec Newman). She showed her true she-devil ways immediately after when she clutched Albany’s gonads while insulting the “milk-livered man.” But Albany immediately revealed himself a match to her when, after she let go, he grabbed her hair at the roots and seethed into her ear about her “deformity."

My reference to “semiprivate” above is recognition of Oswald being present but dutifully turning his back as Goneril and Edmund clasped. Played with sturdy intent by Amit Shah, this Oswald was no villain but a true servant who happened to be aligned— blindly, perhaps, but nevertheless loyally—with the bad side. “I should show what party I do follow,” he told Regan earnestly, and even as he died he tried to make sure his duty was done by asking the disguised Edgar to deliver the letters to Edmund. Grandage, in fact, presented the whole play through the eyes of the servants, Oswald and Kent included. Watching their reactions to the behaviors of the nobles—and the consequences of that behavior—was to see the true effects of the kingdom’s deterioration.

Grandage also decided to show Edmund as a villain from the start, irritated (rather than emboldened) by the bastard label. From the opening scene, Edmund was a caricature of the melodramatic villain, his face full of tics and grimaces, spewing more than speaking his lines, and crouched more than even Poor Tom a’cold. Meanwhile, Gwilym Lee was a heroic Edgar, even in the guise of Poor Tom as he, along with Kent, showed true service to Lear, even displacing the Fool in Lear’s affection. The first half ended with Poor Tom bumping the Fool aside to help lead Lear out, at which point, Ron Cook’s Fool wandered dejectedly off stage in the opposite direction.

It was through this Edgar that this production came to a surprising ending. When Albany cedes rule to Kent and Edgar, and Kent announces his intention to follow his master, Edgar then speaks the final quatrain, a summation of the play’s major leitmotifs. These lines are often spoken contemplatively or even despairingly, given the chaotic conditions of the moment and the present tragedy. However, Edgar, unlike Kent, doesn’t directly reply to Albany’s offer; he thus doesn’t necessarily turn down the scepter. Lee stood up and spoke the quatrain as a pronouncement, the first by the next king. Then the scene faded to bright—the lights came up, and birds began singing. It was a hopeful ending, Edgar finally getting beyond the worst he previously thought would never come as long as he could say "this is the worst."

Not so Kent. He glanced up disapprovingly at the bright sky and nature’s reemergence while his king and surrogate father lay dead in his arms. This man, who hitherto maintained an optimistic bent through all the horrors, now looked to the heavens surely thinking what Gloucester had earlier expressed: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."

Eric Minton
May 17, 2011

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