Derek Jacobi in King Lear: Action Hero

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How It’s New York:  BAM is a New York institution, and a particular source for international entertainment.  You aren’t a New York theatregoer if you haven’t been there.
How It’s Irish:  Some people think the sources for the play include the story “The Children of Lyr.”  And Nahum Tate, who rewrote the play to give it a happy ending, was Irish.   And Justine Mitchell, who plays Regan, is Irish.
 


Derek Jacobi (Johann Persson)

 King Lear is a tragedy.  But it’s also an exciting adventure story.   Never has that been more clear than in the Donmar Warehouse incarnation, starring Derek Jacobi (first known to U.S. audiences through the brilliant BBC series I, Claudius), playing at BAM through June 5.  Michael Grandage takes a story about family betrayal, madness and death and reveals a thrilling story of rival factions, culminating in  a deciding battle and duel.  The bright white lights on a stark white set (set and costumes by Christopher Oram, lighting design by Neil Austin) literally peel away some of the story’s darkness, though the costumes are largely shades of black and grey.   Adam Cork’s sound design adds atmosphere and excitement in the battle scenes, the sounds of hooves, and of course in the famous storm scene.  The stage is usually bare.   Director Michael Grandage hits every bit of plot so that the adventure and excitement of Shakespeare’s tale come first– using the poetry, language and pathos at its service.   If it were a ballad, you could bear it; tits story has many more layers than just the mood of sorrow.   And if there were tickets, you might even want to see this production twice (At intermission I met a man from Texas who’d flown in a day early and paid a scalper $300 so he could see the show).

This is Shakespeare at his most Celtic mythic– we’re in Britain, but we don’t know when, exactly.  References are made to “the gods.”  And  the start of the play even feels like a ballad:  a king decides to give away his kingdom to his three daughters, dividing their portions according to how much they love him– or say they do.  Daughters Goneril and Regan rise to the challenge, speaking hyperbolically about how much they love their father.  But the favorite daughter, Cordelia (winningly portrayed by Pippa Bennett-Warner), refuses to play along.  And so the whole tragedy is set into motion. 

Derek Jacobi (Johann Persson)

Embarassed and hurt, Lear disinherits his favorite child, and banishes the Earl of Kent (Michael Hadley), the faithful councillor who argues “thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,” while she shakes her head no, she doesn’t (very nice touch from Bennett-Warner). This is a play about families– favorites and rivalries, jealousies and betrayals.  It’s also a play about self-knowledge.  A parallel story involves the two sons of the Earl of Gloucester (Paul Jesson).  Edmund (Alec Newman) is a bastard, and resents that his older brother Edgar (Gwilym Lee) will inherit everything (Edgar also has much nicer clothes,  one of Oram’s few heavy-handed touches).  He fools his father into thinking that Edgar is plotting to kill him.   But just as Kent disguises himself to go on serving Lear (whose two daughters, predicatbly, resent having to host him and whittle away his followers and his dignity), Edgar disguises himself as “Mad Tom” and rescues his father from despair after the sisters, on information from Edmond, put out his eyes.

But though the blinding of Gloucester is brutal (and Regan’s husband Cornwall, played by Gideon Turner, even hurls one against the white wall, which it hits with a splat), but it’s so much a part of the narrative here that, like the explosion of Alderaan in Star Wars, you take it in and move on to what is going to happen next.  I’ve seen this play many times– in some wonderful incarnations (one starring F. Murray Abraham, in which the storm winds were played by naked men)– and never noticed before that they blind Gloucester not just to be mean but because they’ve intercepted a letter about invading forces, loyal to the king and led by Cordelia, landing at Dover.   The interception of the damning note has never been as clear as in Grandage’s telling.  So along with being a story about families, insight, death and madness– it’s also a war story.  It’s thrilling, and though what happens is sad, it’s never melancholy.

Derek Jacobi (Johan Persson)

Jacobi’s Lear has grandeur, intelligence and heart.  He’s lovable, jolly but not quaint and you can see how his temper, fierce in old age, must once have been lordly and decisive.  When he encounters the injustice of his daughters, and fears madness, you feel bad for him, but you don’t feel pity– he’s still, somehow, grand.  What’s more, his stream-of-conscious patter and fieriness is so established that his madness hardly seems much of a change of pace.  When he banishes Kent in the first scene, Jacobi seems to be on the verge of a heart attack.  When he curses out his daughter Goneril, he’s so over the top and so fluent about it (“Create her child of spleen, that it may live and be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her!”) that even she cries (and it makes you wonder if he was like this as a father when they were kids.  You’d want to stay out of hearing range of that tongue).  His reunion with Cordelia, after his bout of madness in the storm, is quietly dignified, and heartbreaking.  You could hear (and see, thanks to the way the show is lit) people sniffling all over the house.

  As for the storm:  the designers do something unexpected here; the light suddenly shines through the cracks in the floor and walls, with fog onstage, so that there is a real sense of menace.  And Jacobi whispers “blow, winds and crack your cheeks”– almost as if he’s already become one with the storm.

Derek Jacobi (Johan Persson(

The company are uniformly wonderful.  Cordelia is a tricky role, one that can easily seem haughty (who among us, put on the spot, wouldn’t at least try to say something to please Dad), but Bennett-Warner plays her as truly inarticulate and sincere.  She, like Kent, loves her father in spite of himself– which is how this Lear has to be loved (I’m always curious what Mrs. Lear was like.  She must have been a calming influence on him).  This Cordelia seemed not unwilling but truly unable to speak the way Lear wanted her to, and when she does speak, she’s trying to explain– but he’s already too angry to hear her.  That choice also makes her later complete forgiveness and strength of purpose easier to understand.  Hadley’s Kent is not only right, but funny, particularly when he’s in disguise.  When clapped in the stocks, he’s more irritated than pathetic.  Ron Cook is a fresh sort of fool– cheecky but middle-aged, not a boy at all though Lear calls him one.  And his timing is perfect. 

 Gina McKee’s Goneril masks her strength with a lovely, soft voice, but you can see that,  like Edmund, she’s driven by long-standing resentment.  It’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest triumphs that the people in this world are as likely to be randomly decent as evil– and Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany (Tom Beard) displays godness and morality.  Unlike a certain Scottish nobleman, he’s immune to Goneril’s taunts that he’s too soft to be ambitious.    Justine Mitchell’s Regan seems more sweet in manner, but again, as befits a middle child, she’s simmering with divided loyalties.  At times she seems afraid of her sister, and when she at first tries to explain to Lear that her house is too small to house him and all of his followers, she seems reasonable.  But wait.  When she takes it in her head to out-mean her sister, she does.  She might have lived all her life seeming nice enough, until the perfect storm of opportunity, lust and greed brought out the worst in her.

Derek Jacobi (Johan Persson)

  Oswald, often portrayed as an officious fool, is played as a sneaky courtier by Amit Shah.  And I loved that Alec Newman”s Edmond, often loaded with sex appeal, resists the temptation to make him likeable and goes right for the loathsome (after gaining just a touch of sympathy by his having to suffer his father’s description of him as a bastard at the top of the show).  Noble Edgar has never interested me before, but Gwilym Lee brings something to the role that makes his goodness far more interesting than Edmund’s sinister glee.  That’s no mean trick.  I’m not sure how he did it– it isn’t just that he’s so handsome, though he is (after dispatching Oswald, he hauls him onto his shoulder like he’s nothing at all).  There’s something almost Hamlet-like in the way he feigns madness– at times he might have been taken over by his game– and something so grand and graceful in his care for his father.  Shakespeare has written the role as a man full of heart and imagination, but  he’s always bored me before.  Not here.

 The final showdown between the two sons– evil Edmund and noble Edgar– is as exciting as any Western gunfight.  Albany summons a challenger with the trumpet– and Edgar arrives at the last minute.  It’s Shakespeare at his most Hollywood like in terms of heroes, villains, plots and reversals.  You can understand why Tate tried to give the people what they wanted by saving Lear and marrying Edgar and Cordelia at the end.  But that would turn the play into a cautionary tale about early retirement and flattery, and it’s much more than that.  When Lear speaks to his dead daughter, willing her to be alive,  his portrayal of grief feels so bewildered, so accurate, so recognizable that it’s hard not to instantly recollect your own for anyone you’ve ever lost.

It’s cathartic.   And it’s revelatory.  And, in its three-hankie way, it’s even fun.

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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts
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