Michael Grandage’s King Lear, starring Derek Jacobi, now playing at BAM’S Harvey Theater through June 5, seems as fresh as a new coat of paint (chalky white paint, actually, cliffs of Dover white!).  You’re not in a cave or at Stonehenge—the creators aren’t sinking us into the primordial mud of England again (although it might be smeared on someone’s face). You may even think this production is a playful subversion of Peter Brook’s dark and foreboding 1965 black-and-white film with Paul Scofield or Michael Elliott’s colorful 1983 TV movie starring Laurence Olivier. Instead, the residue of all those great performances, all that 400-year-old theatrical tradition–and pancake–is scrubbed and bleached away, as if somebody said—“Hold this play up, literally, to the light!”  What you’ll most likely discover, besides realizing that you’re awake at the end, is that your English teachers weren’t wrong–brutal King Lear deserves every accolade it has ever received, despite sometimes gloomy and sluggish interpretations.  

One consideration for Grandage was probably how to make the audience last through Lear, a mammoth journey of at least three hours. The light, the brightness, that chalky whiteness of this production, is one of those facilitating ideas.  So is the minimal, conceptual set—a chair, stocks, and a stool are about all the props there are—there’s no place for mold and moss to grow because all the historical clutter is gone.  The director is also keenly aware of the pacing, from the very first beat (which he delays!). Then, suddenly, we’re in.  Whether this trend started with Bergman voicing that his productions were like music, or whether we get it from Albee saying that if we wanted “to learn something about the structure of a play, listen to Bach”—or whether we go all the way back to Shakespeare hammering out the feet of his iambic pentameter: plays are timing, and maybe all great directors of any age know that.  Their thinking is probably most like a conductor and a choreographer—not simply like people who ask the actors to run their lines faster.

Lear is a dangerous part, of course, even on a superficial level, because if he’s portrayed as too old and “worn out,” the play drags; if he’s too energetic you question why he can’t put off dividing his kingdom.  Derek Jacobi takes a very interesting tack by showing us that there’s still energy left (which is good for the audience) but the emotions can no longer be controlled—he keeps flying off the handle.  I would take the position that Lear makes exactly the right executive decision by dividing his kingdom—he knows he’s burnt out, losing it, and can’t take the pressure any more. His real problem is his succession plan (he keeps pretending that there isn’t evil backing him up).

When Jacobi says “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” to his oldest daughter Goneril (Gina McKee), you believe he might be finding these words suddenly and spitefully. It’s because this actress is rail thin and has a Faye Dunaway, snakelike, merciless look. She, this daughter, this ghoul, owns the stage, as she manipulates and controls her family (you might even think she’ll get along perfectly in an office job in midtown Manhattan with all the games she’s playing). You’ll appreciate the abilities of this production’s Regan, too, the second daughter (Justine Mitchell), who discovers that she is able to win, to be more than her older sister, when she draws blood during the blinding scene.  In a second, we see how she’s up for more.

Could Shakespeare ever have suspected, ever really have thought how good the acting might be in his plays? Listen to Jacobi as he adds sound modulation to the pitch-perfect elocution of the famous speech on the heath, which he starts in a whisper:     

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!”

Gwilym Lee, as the banished Edgar, works precisely, finding the beat when asked where he’s been:

“A serving-man, proud in heart and mind; that curled my hair; wore gloves in my cap; served the lust of my mistress' heart, and did the act of darkness with her; swore as many oaths as I spake words, and broke them in the sweet face of heaven: one that slept in the contriving of lust, and waked to do it: wine loved I deeply, dice dearly: and in woman out-paramoured the Turk: false of heart, light of ear, bloody of hand; hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness, dog in madness, lion in prey.”

After this evening of theatre, you may decide to let the actors contend with showing behavior and emotions, but playwrights actually should be writing poetry.  The structural lines of King Lear, too, are not muddled at all—the play seems so well ordered in this production, it feels predestined, rather than existential.  Hamlet may be more of a play in a quandary about where to end up—but Lear is doomed from the start.

Gideon Turner and Alec Newman are the sexy bad boys holding the stage: Newman, as Edmund, is cunning, conniving, packaged as a beef cake, meat marketed as a boy toy—I don’t even want to know how they pour him into the tight pants every night. This actor has presence, a very wide set of teeth, longish hair: see if you don’t think he’s charismatic playing the bastard. Following the villains is part of Lear’s grip, but the less barbarous characters are also very well played:  Ron Cook, in actual clown white; Michael Hadley, disguised in a hood; Pippa Bennett-Warner; Michael Hadley; Paul Jesson; Amit Shah; Ashley Zhangagha; Stepfano Braschi; Harry Attwell; and Derek Hutchinson are the casts’ names.

Good, current British acting can be so laser-like in its clarity, so un-nostalgic. Although it has authority, the work doesn’t seem to be carrying the flab of the past; it doesn’t seem to be showing you the right way to do it (even if we love the way Laurence Olivier played Lear). The characters, as directed by a Grandage, Gregory Doran, or Rupert Goold aren’t pre-approved or pre-assumed–we discover them through the actors, beat by beat, through the rhythms of the text. The fact is that these directors don’t treat Shakespeare like a very old man only ripe for ripping off, for our cultural literacy, for our cultural heritage, for the celebritizing of acting, either.  We’re taken further into his imagination, instead.

© 2011 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Visit the BAM Web site: http://www.bam.org/view.aspx?pid=2653

King Lear

Part of the 2011 Spring Season

Apr 28—Jun 5, 2011: Tue—Sat at 7:30pm; Sat at 2pm (Apr 30 and Jun 4 only); Sun at 3pm

US Premiere

Presented by the Donmar Warehouse and BAM

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage

The New York Times calls King Lear at once "beautiful and devastating" and "terrifically entertaining." Read the full review here.

“One of the most keenly awaited Shakespearean performances of recent times…” —The Guardian (UK)

Sir Derek Jacobi is King Lear. Known to American audiences for his Broadway (Uncle Vanya, Much Ado About Nothing), film (Hamlet, Dead Again), and television work (I, Claudius), the legendary British actor takes on one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles in a major new production from director Michael Grandage and the brilliant team behind six-time Tony Award-winning Red, the renowned Donmar Warehouse (Creditors, 2010 Spring Season).

An aging monarch. A kingdom divided. A child’s love rejected. Lear’s world descends into chaos, and all that he once believed is now threatened. Unrivaled theatrical partners, Tony and Olivier Award winners Jacobi and Grandage (The Tempest, Don Carlos, and Twelfth Night) bring the drama’s grand themes to vivid life in a production that unites one of the great actors of our time and one of England’s most revered directors.

BAM Harvey Theater
195min with intermission

Subscription & Theater Package Tickets:
$28—76 Sat night & Sun mat
$20—64 All other performances

(Full price: $35—95 Sat night & Sun mat
$25—80 All other performances)

Prices are subject to change.

Set and costume design by Christopher Oram
Lighting design by Neil Austin
Composition and sound design by Adam Cork

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