King Lear

    Part of the BAM  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


Let me begin by saying that this Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear at BAM directed by Michael Grandage and starring Derek Jacobi, made for a completely absorbing and successful evening of theater:  it was far better than most Shakespeare we have seen in recent years, and we felt very good about having seen it.  The production moved us along through the rich intensity of its own experience for three hours (including one intermission),  maintaining our rapt attention and active interest.  The acting was quite credible, and the set design and lighting superb.  So, the short answer is that this production, at BAM through 4 July, is well worth seeing.


But let me continue by saying that Lear is the play that most convinces me that Harold Bloom may be correct in his contention that Shakespeare should primarily be read, rather than performed.    At best, there is always a difficulty in bringing the power and subtlety of Shakespeare to a staged production.  Lear has some particular difficulties that make this even more true than with his other plays, and all productions of it invariably fall somewhat short. To begin with, Lear lacks any clear center:  despite Lear's commanding emotional presence, there are several other monumentally important characters in the play, all of which require adequate weight and expression if the play is to succeed;  according to Bloom,

There are four great roles in The Tragedy of King Lear, though you might not know it from most stagings of the play.  Cordelia's, for all her pathos, is not one of them, nor are Goneril's and Regan's of the same order of dramatic eminence as the roles of Lear and the Fool.  Edmund and Edgar, antithetical half brothers, require actors as skilled and powerful as do Lear and the Fool.  I have seen a few appropriate Edmunds, best of all Joseph Wiseman many years ago in New York, saving an otherwise ghastly performance in which Louis Calhern, as Lear, reminded me only of how much more adequate he had been as Ambassador Trentino in the Marx Bothers' Duck Soup.  Wiseman played Edmund as an amalgam of Leon Trotsky and Don Giovanni, but it worked quite brilliantly, and there is much in the text to sustain that curious blend.  (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, pp.479f.)

In addition, productions must contend with the fact that parallel to the painful tale of Lear and his daughters there is the story line about Gloucester and his sons.   Furthermore, there is no a single, defining theme in Lear, but rather a complex tapestry of painful threads, woven on a loom of nihilism and suffering.  Moreover, Lear himself is an extremely demanding character, in part because, as Bloom puts it, he is

beyond grandeur...outrageously hyperbolic, insanely eloquent...always demand[ing] more love than can be given..and so he can scarcely speak without crossing into the realms of the unsayable...


Lear's verbal force almost always preempts all spontaneity of speech in others.  The exception is his Fool, the uncanniest character in Shakespeare...  One function of Lear's Fool is precisely that of Hamlet's Horatio:  to mediate, for the audience, a personage otherwise beyond our knowing, Hamlet being too far beyond us, and Lear being blindingly close.  Much of what we know in Hamlet we receive from Horatio, just as the Fool humanizes Lear, and makes the dreadful king accessible to us.  ...You could remove the Fool and Horatio and not alter much in the way of plot structures, but you would remove our surrogates from the plays, for the Fool and Horatio are the true voices of our feelings.  ...Horatio is a comfort to us, but the Fool drives us a little mad as he pushes Lear further into madness, so as to punish the king for his great folly. (Ibid., pp.493ff.)

It is not easy for a  production to create a Lear whose stature, grandeur, and authority the audience appreciates, whose failings and suffering the audience recognizes, and to whom the audience can personally relate--and  yet this is precisely what is necessary, if the play is to succeed.


This brings me to the greatest of this production's shortcomings.  At the risk of being misunderstood, allow me to put it this way:  Michael Grandage 's production is more a comedy than a tragedy.  I mean this in two separate ways, although I fear the latter is rather generated by the former.  Most profoundly, I refer to the distinction that has been drawn between the essential perspectives of comedy and tragedy (I believe by Northrop Frye):  in comedy we view the characters from the outside, watching what occurs to them as observers; whereas in tragedy we identify with the main character and participate in his drama, feeling what is going on from within his perspective.  Richard Sewall pointed out "the undeniable truth that comedy gains its power from its sense of tragic possibility. (The Vision of Tragedy, p.1.); the subject matter of these two forms can be the same--it is the perspective that differentiates them.  For all the reasons I have said, it is most difficult to create onstage a Lear that both maintains his stature and allows us to feel inside his humanity; and, if one is allowed an escape, it is incredibly seductive to be able to distance oneself from Lear's experience.  This Lear succeeds neither in conveying the majesty of the king nor in allowing us into his personhood.  As a (I believe) secondary consequence, the production evokes far too many laughs to be appropriate to this great tragedy.  To be sure, there are moments in the play design to have some humorous intent...but not nearly so many as in this production (to be fair, some--albeit not all--of this laughter may be attributable to some lack of sophistication in the audience)--and definitely not in some of the places they occur.  Even in what Bloom has termed "the to the tragedy...the meeting of the mad king and the blind Gloucester" [Ibid., p.481], there is laughter evoked from the audience, rather than a sense of sublime pathos; and Lear's expression of revulsion at female sexuality in his tormented attack on womankind is clearly intentionally treated as a bawdy joke, rather than anguish at the fact that his relationship with his daughters has usurped and unhinged him.


In truth, there are many aspects of this Lear  that seem to miss or trivialize some of the more profound themes and moments in Shakespeare's play.  The Fool, one of the play's great characters, although extremely well-played by Ron Cook, seems to have been denied some of the profoundness of the role:  at very least, too much of his interaction with Lear is played more as comic than meaningful--so as to make it difficult to realize that it is driving Lear further into madness, although he clearly loves him; and, although I am not completely sure, I actually think the production may have omitted the incredible speech of prophecy the Fool is supposed to make ("The prophecy of Merlin shall I make; for I live before his time." [III.ii.79-95]) as Gloucester leads him and Lear off stage out of the storm--and, if I am wrong and it was there, it must have been woefully underplayed.  The casting of Gwilym Lee as Edgar--or perhaps the direction of him--seems unfortunate:  while he does fine with the feigned madness of Tom of Bedlam, we are not really prepared for him to have the stature that the character requires--and this production does not give any preparation or hint that would make sense of the fact he is to be the one who in the end will become king.


There are some quite wonderful performances.  Michael Hadley was excellent as KentGina McKee as Goneril and Justine Mitchell as Regan both acquitted themselves well in their convincing portrayals of Lear's evil daughters.  Alec Newman was particularly wonderful in his portrayal of Edmund:  he was, perhaps, the most fully-effective of anyone in the production in capturing the full range of the complexity and emotion of this most important of characters, much in the way I imagine Shakespeare would have intended.


Which brings me to Derek Jacobi as Lear.  His doing the role was, in fact, what made me want to be sure to see this performance in the first place.  Nevertheless, I am somewhat mixed about his performance.  On the one hand, it was quite splendid:  Jacobi is a commanding presence on stage (I was amazed to learn that he is actually quite slight in his actual physical stature, as that was not at all the impression he created on stage); he appropriately seethed with amazing emotional energy; he was incredibly riveting to watch--and the fact that we were in the third row center intensified what was already an incredibly intense experience.  On the other hand, his performance had some serious flaws:  most importantly, when he was expressing emotional agitation (which is for a great percentage of his role), his elocution was not always adequately good to permit me to understand all of the words he was speaking--even though I am quite familiar with most of Lear's speeches.  Most of the other flaws I rather think are more attributable to directorial decisions than to his acting decisions, but it is, of course, hard to know for sure:  while his incredible presence and energy did lend stature to the role, the interplay of the anguished and the furious, the mad and the comic, and the regal and the haughty did not play out to maximum effect--he was a character more confused than tragic.  (I wish I could create a better allusion to "More sinn'd against than sinning"...)  Still, it was an incredible performance, if a somewhat disappointing portrayal of Lear.


The actual physical staging of the play was completely successful, and totally to my personal taste:  it was done most simply (as I believe Lear always need to be), on a bare stage, without any scenery, save for the incredibly interesting backdrop of a semicircle of  floor-to-ceiling, vertical panels, painted in a thickly-applied, abstract, Pollock-like pattern in grays and white.  This excellent set design was by Christopher Oram (who also dis the simple but effective costumes).  Almost all of the remaining effects were created by the fabulous lighting by Neil Austin: again done in the most understatedly effective way--mostly with varying intensity and hue of basically white light (ranging in color/temperature from warm yellow whites to brilliantly cold blue ones).


Despite the fact that, on the deepest levels, this production fails sustain the tensions that are necessary fully to create the profound tragic depth that lies at the heart of Shakespeare's incredible play, it is nevertheless a wonderful evening of theater.  See it, if you can.


Note: Very limited availability remains. Call Ticket Services at 718.636.4100 for inquiries.

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