The haunting themes of King Lear touch on nature’s cruelty, Fate’s arbitrary hand, and man’s inevitable decline – and their truth strikes everyone differently depending on where one is in life. Somehow, I’ve seen Lears now at every decade change, and each time the play changes for me.
This time, watching the Donmar Warehouse’s production at BAM, I heard most clearly the anguished cry of WHY? Under the strong direction of Michael Grandage, with Derek Jacobi as the king, that cry becomes internalized into an aching whisper of venom and regret. It reverberates against a soaring wall of Christopher Oram’s set, bringing to mind the stark beauty of the White Cliffs of Dover, against which the characters become black carrion crows.
For this Lear, the injustice of age is its very inevitability – as it begins to take away your strength, your power and dignity, as slowly the landscape changes about you and people treat you differently. Where once your hundred knights were seen as noble, now they’re perceived as brutish ruffians. And when your firstborn begins to speak to you with dismissive contempt, and your youngest tells you to act your age, the rage is absolute, a full circle to a baby’s wail.
Right from the start we know Jacobi’s Lear is a man still clinging to the caprices of youth. He’s a constant trickster, though above all a king. The reactions of his daughters as he splits his kingdom in exchange for their flattery shows us they are well used to this kind of game. They may respond reasonably at first, but with each successive scene Goneril (Gina McKee) and Regan (Justine Mitchell) telegraph the mounting frustration that has built all their lives. Eventually, they are done with their father’s whims and temper tantrums.
Lear’s painful desires to be loved best of all, and to have things remain as they were in youth, are the keynotes of Jacobi’s performance. It’s not just his daughters but his retainers who fulfill that need. His good qualities may have once made subjects loyal to him, but as age progresses it’s now vain and unseemly to crave their roar. He knows it, but cannot let it go. Sometimes it struck me as if Jacobi, a brilliant Richard II, was imagining that particular king in his twilight years.
The sins of the father come to bear in the second half, when it’s clear that his children’s evil qualities are a result of their twisted resemblance to Lear himself. Regan’s mad playfulness and Goneril’s chilly resolve are all initially seen first enacted by Lear himself. McKee and Jacobi even hint at the legacy of abuse in their scenes together. Sadly, his good characteristic, a winning sweetness, has been banished from the court in the person of his youngest daughter Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner), the only person brave enough to ask, isn’t it about time to stop playing this game?
Lear hasn’t just split his kingdom. He’s spilt himself. His madness is like the worm in the apple, infecting not only himself but everyone around him.
All that remains are his loyal retainers, Kent (Michael Hadley) and The Fool (Ron Cook). Tellingly, Oram’s costume design has the Fool looking for all the world like the Knave of Hearts. He’s got a dry Northern sensibility with the physicality of a Jack in the Box hinting at his own madcap youth, but now he’s just as tired as everyone else of Lear’s caprice. By making the men about the same age, you can imagine him as Lear’s whipping boy, his companion since childhood, the one who might indeed love him best. When he finally leaves him, it’s with a devastating slump of the shoulders, the defeat of a cast-off friend.
Is this Lear worthy of the love he craves? Should he be forgiven? The production leaves any answer to ambiguity, and I think that’s the best choice. When Lear says, “Let me not be mad,” it’s our first glimpse into his true mind, and the fear he expresses begins to turn our opinion of his capricious behavior. But the next time we know his mind, during the storm scene, it’s enraged. Instead of Lear railing against the storm out loud, Grandage freezes frame mid-thunderclap and brings us inside Lear’s mind so that Jacobi delivers the speech as a whisper. It’s positively riveting and unexpected.
From these two psychologically revealing moments, Jacobi does two brilliant things. He starts to work against his usual deeply melodic tonality, and as Lear descends into madness and old age truly takes over, his voice rises into the upper registers, reedy and petulant, both toddler and old man. It’s a brave choice to work against his most famous instrument. Physically, he lumbers in his first scene, almost bull-like, so that the slow loss of control and strength is shocking. By the time he is deep in madness, he has the loose and flowing movements of a small child. He absolutely embodies a wayward boy in a transformation that is endearing and shocking, vacillating between acts of kindness and moments of pure ugly venom. In the end, whether you forgive him or not greatly depends on your own emotional response.
Never have I heard the text or its themes so clearly. The theme of Fortune and the Wheel reverberates throughout strongly, embodied in the two opposing brothers – bastard Edmund (Alec Newman) and naïve Edgar (Gwilym Lee). Newman chooses to play Edmund as the Merry Vice, a smiling villain rather than a brooding one, pushing apart the world with glee. Lee shines more as the Wheel carries him down, his Tom an aching manifestation of shivering fear.
As the three sisters, McKee, Mitchell and Bennett-Warner have done hard work at creating a believable and chilling family dynamic, each one having a complex relationship with their father played out in the choices of the kind of husband they’ve made. The charismatic thug Cornwall (Gideon Turner) or the noble yet distant Albany (Tom Beard) represent aspects of Lear’s psyche in the same way as his daughters.
Above all, regret sears through this Lear. The storm always hinted in the background of sound designer Adam Cork is death riding towards the king, and no matter how hard you rail against it, he comes for us all. I never thought of Lear as a morality play until this production, but here I heard Shakespeare’s voice coming through in a whisper, warning us of the pale rider on his way. There will be a reckoning, but perhaps there will even be forgiveness.
King Lear continues thru June 5, 2011 at BAM, 651 Fulton St, Brooklyn, NY. The run is sold out, except for some partial view seats. Inquire at 718 636-4100.