Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage
I knew an old fella once who whenever nature called, would excuse himself with one of two lines he owed, respectively, to Hamlet
and Julius Caesar
: "I must absent myself from felicity a while" or "There is a tide in the affairs of men." Such is the fun to be had with Shakespeare. Few literate people can fail to be envious of actors employed to speak his words. So, it’s peculiar how rarely the words are spoken. They are yelled, screamed or barked—everything is done to make them incomprehensible. In Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
, there’s a moment when one character shouts through a bullhorn from a helicopter. What’s the point?
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, King Lear
is the most vulnerable to spectacle and misplaced passion—to the actorly desire to "out-herod Herod,"as Hamlet put it. With its eye-gouging and madness, Lear
readily degenerates into a cringe-inducing shout fest. So, it was with subterranean expectations that I arrived at BAM’s Harvey Theater
to see Derek Jacobi in a production transplanted from London’s Donmar Warehouse (through June 5). Immediately, a curtainless stage of mottled white boards perked me up. Perfect. In the theater, anything other than a minimalist set tends to foreground the problematic elements of Shakespeare. This is a world where psychological transformations happen instantaneously and are pegged to trifles (Cordelia’s reluctance to speak her love, for example) or implausible events (Gloucester’s imagined cliff-top plunge). A change of clothing conceals Edgar’s identity from his father, and so on. Call Lear a fairy tale if you will. Actually, the plot more resembles an exhausted parent’s bedtime improvisation. Anything that emphasizes the mechanical elements of the storytelling will draw attention to aspects of the play a modern audience would rather forget.
The cast soon reveals itself to be excellent, as one would expect from the roster of fine British talent. But then comes the real test: the storm scene, where countless productions have drowned in mock rain and flying spittle. In contrast, Jacobi whispers his exhortation to the elements. No special effects, no hemorrhaging histrionics. Just a thrilling voice intoning language of desperate beauty in the darkness.
From there, Jacobi is stupendous. After Lear has flipped his last marble, he exhibits the affecting simplicity of a child. Jacobi employs a toddler’s gestures and intonation, and the effect is more moving than it is reasonable to expect. Could it be that the wisdom of old age, that hideous inverted childhood, is the
recovery of youthful innocence.
The play could not be done better, either in terms of the ensemble or its leading man. It’s a peculiarly sad realization. You don’t have to agree with Tolstoy, who thought Shakespeare a fraud, to concede that we’re now so much immured in realism that Shakespeare’s stories don’t quite work. There’s an unbridgeable gap between the brilliance and insight of the language and the oddity and plain silliness of the action. Even a Lear
as flawless as this one devolves into a series of compelling moments and speeches, lacking the narrative drive and unity to which we are all addicted. But this production sees the lightning strike often enough, illuminating the play with an imagistic genius. And Jacobi is a rare beast: an old theatrical lion, majestic in his pacing and sparing in his roar.
(photo: Johan Persson)