King Lear, like Hamlet for younger male actors, is a hurdle that challenges and daunts actors aspiring to tackle all the major Shakespeare leads. Sir Derek Jacobi, in his long-awaited accession to the role in Michael Grandage’s intense, intimate production, captured the universality of the play by portraying one man’s personal tragedy. His Lear was by turns “every inch a king” and “second childishness and mere oblivion” in a masterly performance, supported by an excellent cast and a stark scenic and sound design that allowed for no distractions from the cataclysmic breakdown of family and order.
The austerity of Christopher Oram’s designs for this Lear evoked Scandinavia, Japan, and medieval Britain, but included no specific details to tie the story to any particular time or locale. Absent were the trappings of court and Lear’s much-disputed hundred knights, and the king did not even have a throne or wear a crown. The simple grey planks of the thrust-stage set allowed the action to hurtle from Lear’s palace to the blasted heath, the hovel, and the darkling plain where the sisters’ antagonism erupted into civil war. Long navy blue cassocks, tied with wide obis, were paired with combat boots and swords, and Lear’s kingly robe bespoke respected age more than royalty—Gloucester and Kent wore similar robes.
Ron Cook’s outstanding Fool, whose motley costume departed from the subdued color scheme, wore brightly striped socks, Japanese trousers and happi coat, and a tufted hat, but all of it rather faded and worn; he had clearly been in service as Lear’s Fool for a long time, and sartorial neatness was not a concern to him or his master. The spare simplicity of the designs enhanced the tight ensemble acting; the audience (and the camera work) focused on the faces, not on “robes and furred gowns”.
In the staging of the division of the kingdom, director Michael Grandage quickly established Lear’s capricious treatment of his favorites, and set the scene for disaster. The relaxed, playful tone of the scene reminded the audience that the reason for Lear’s calling the family together was for Cordelia to choose her husband; the love-test took everyone by surprise. Lear beckoned to Goneril for a kiss on the cheek before her fulsome declaration of love, and he was visibly moved by Regan’s flattery. He kissed Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner) before asking her to speak; his tone and behavior clearly proclaimed his preference. He sounded initially confused at Cordelia’s “Nothing”, but he then, as though to negate her utterly, shut his eyes as he disowned her and stopped his ears against her plea to explain her fault to France and Burgundy. This Lear was a petulant baby, throwing temper tantrums and refusing to acknowledge the existence of the object of his displeasure. He plucked Cordelia’s crown from her head and tossed it to his sons-in-law—“This coronet part between you”.
Jacobi gave audiences a mischievous, volatile Lear; he treated the script like a master artist, finding new colors and textures in the words, and demonstrating enormous emotional range. His joviality in the earlier scenes gave way to a terrifying loss of control; as his mental faculties began to break down, his pitiful half-sentences were broken by tears of frustration and anger. He bent double and screamed before turning to the fool with “I shall go mad”; this chilling moment unnerved even Gina McKee’s steely Goneril.
Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell, well differentiated as Goneril and Regan, did not initially intend to be vicious; Regan was distressed by the banishment of Kent, and Goneril had simply reached the end of her patience: “Every hour /He…flashes into one gross crime or other /That sets us all at odds” (actor’s pause and emphasis). She took a moment to search for the word that conveyed his unpredictable humor; in her sudden discovery that “Old fools are babes again”, she made the decision to be undutiful. Regan took rather longer to lose her better nature; it was only when her father tried to use the bargaining point of “I gave you all—” that she snapped “And in good time you gave it”, realizing that her father had no hold over her. She became more assertive, but even as Lear stomped off into the storm, she wept and tried to justify her behavior and make accommodations for Lear’s anger. Regan observed that Lear had “ever but slenderly known himself”, but Mitchell’s Regan was a woman whose personality veered wildly from melting to sadistic; shortly after showing fear at Lear’s temper, she clapped her hands and jumped with fierce joy at the blinding of Gloucester.
Like Lear, Gloucester fatally failed to recognize the resentments of his offspring; neither man seemed able to comprehend a world in which children could show ingratitude. As Paul Jesson’s cheerful Gloucester introduced his illegitimate son, Edmund (Alec Newman), to Kent (Michael Hadley), and told him that Edmund “hath been out nine years”, he added in a tone of jocular admonition to his son, “and away he shall again”. Edmund dropped his cringing, Uriah Heep-like physicality for a moment as his father turned away; already he chafed under the “plague of custom” that kept him in a menial position. Edmund initially behaved like a servant; as he interrupted Regan and Goneril’s conversation at the end of 1.1, he bowed low, but they took no notice of him. It was not until he framed Edgar in the murder plot and assumed power in the household that he stood up straight and the sisters began to fight over him. He pointed after his exited father on “whoremaster man”, and put the word that most offended him in the mouth of Edgar when he told his father that his legitimate son taunted Edmund with “unpossessing bastard” (actor’s emphasis). When Regan embraced and kissed him on the cheek, moments before the blinding of his father, Edmund stood awkwardly, as if unused to human contact. He quickly found his sea-legs, though—as Goneril promised herself to him, he roughly grabbed her breasts and kissed her. He retained some sparks of humanity in the end, weeping for his father’s death, and “Yet Edmund was beloved” was a cri de coeur as his life ebbed.
As Edgar, Gwilym Lee admirably negotiated the shifts of the character. He never fully lost himself in the Poor Tom persona, and he dropped character for a moment as he saw his father during the storm scene; he regained his mad disguise when he realized that his father failed to recognize him, but he was visibly moved by Gloucester’s confession that he loved the son “now outlawed from [his] blood”. When Edgar next saw his father, Gloucester was still weeping from the pain of his blinding; he tenderly cared for him and cheered him to endure the worst of his trials. “Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither”, he reminded his father; Gloucester never lost his essential ebullience, slapping his leg and uttering his departing line with determination, “And that’s true too”. In their travails, Edgar’s use of the term “Father” sounded like a slip of the tongue, though he never acknowledged his true identity, even in a poignant moment when Gloucester ran his hands blindly over his son’s face, asking, “Now, good sir, what are you?” That he kept this knowledge from his father for so long made him weep in the final scene, as he exchanged forgiveness with his brother.
Grandage radically broke with theatre tradition in the storm scene, which was conveyed through sudden strobe lights and howling winds, and just as sudden silences as Lear astonishingly whispered, rather than howled, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks”; this was a storm that clearly raged in his head. As the Fool urged Lear to find shelter, he had to shout over the noisy weather, but Lear stood as if in the eye of the storm. Jacobi took Lear’s journey of self-discovery and regal responsibility step by step; as he turned to the Fool to ask him, “Art cold?” the surprised realization, “I am cold myself”, led directly into his prayer for the “poor naked wretches”, the homeless of his kingdom. This Lear balanced such moments of lucidity with unreasonable, tetchy behavior both sane and mad; seldom have Kent and Gloucester’s efforts to get Lear into the hovel seemed so sadly funny. Whining that he wanted to “keep still with my philosopher” (Edgar in the guise of Poor Tom), he was like a three-year-old who refuses to put on his shoes. The Fool, a man who had grown old with Lear, knew that his foolery had grown stale (Ron Cook had a lovely crestfallen reaction to the punchline of the seven stars riddle), but also knew that his master still valued it. Lear took the Fool’s hand on “O let me not be mad” and the two men stood there like a parent and child, but it was not entirely clear which was which.
King Lear is a cruel play, one that puts madness and horror on display and dares you to look away. Five bodies lie on the stage (three in this production—Goneril and Regan remained off), and Shakespeare offers nothing but ineffectual, formulaic words to comfort the audience. The silence of the final moments of this production was broken by birdsong, perhaps to underscore the idea that nature “pities neither wise men nor fools”, or alternatively, that, despite the horror, life goes on. Humans’ striving and conniving has no bearing on the natural world.
Note: All line references from the Arden King Lear, ed. R.A. Foakes (1997: Thomas Nelson, Walton-on-Thames).
– This Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear was staged at the National Theatre as part of the National Theatre Live series and broadcast to Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall on Feb 12, 2011.
Following its UK tour, this production will make its U.S. premiere at BAM in Brooklyn, NY April 28 – June 5, 2011. More details here.
The next National Theatre Live production at Sidney Harman Hall will be Frankenstein by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle. Since the two leads switch roles, there will be 2 broadcasts of this production. Version 1, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature will be shown March 21st at 7:30pm. Version 2, with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, airs April 23 at 8pm. These are likely to sell out. Early reservations are strongly advised. Click here for tickets.