nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
May 8, 2011
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” asks Lear. In this Donmar Warehouse production at BAM, Lear is by turns a king, a fool, a father, a beggar, a madman, a child, and, ultimately once it is too late, a wiser man. Derek Jacobi fearlessly takes on the title role in this British import production directed by Michael Grandage, the artistic director of Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London.
King Lear had its first recorded performance in 1606 at the Globe Theatre in London. Shakespeare’s play explores the nature of man, the nature of power, and the nature of identity. The story takes us to Celtic Britain; to a Kingdom where nothing and no one really is as initially seems. A place where characters such as Edmund, Goneril, and Regan hide their bad inward natures and others like Kent and Edgar must disguise their outward appearances in order to do good.
As Lear opens the aged King is tired of the responsibilities of ruling and offers to divide his Kingdom into three, giving the greatest portion to the daughter whose declaration of love pleases him the most. Regan and Goneril engage in flowery praise telling him what he wants to hear while Cordelia the youngest is rewarded for her loyalty and honesty with disinheritance and banishment. Lear is essentially blind to truth. And he is not alone; the King’s loyal courtier, the Earl of Gloucester, is also duped into disowning his legitimate son Edgar by his ambitious illegitimate son Edmund through lies and trickery. These tragic events precipitate Lear’s descent into madness and the Kingdom’s downward spiral into chaos.
Director Grandage’s production is pared down to the core in order to focus on the story and the clarity of the text and is certainly successful in this aim. The performers on the whole handle the text expertly. Jacobi in particular takes the audience on an amazing journey chronicling the downfall of a powerful king. Paul Jesson and Michael Hadley provide ample support as the Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Kent. Ron Cook as Lear’s Fool grabs us and holds our attention every time he steps out on the stage, bringing much needed levity to the proceedings. Other standouts are Tom Beard as the Duke of Albany, Gwilym Lee as Edgar, and Alec Newman as Edmund, who all turn is solid performances. Gina McKee makes a stern, reserved Goneril, Justine Mitchell seems out of place as Regan, and Pippa Bennett-Warner is a sympathetic, gentle Cordelia.
Grandage’s direction is well paced and true to his aim of simplicity, yet the main highlight of interest is the storm when all the elements of set, lights, staging, and performance fully fuse to fascinating effect. On the down side the fight choreography by Terry King is uninteresting and poorly executed.
Designer Christopher Oram’s set is a spare vast canvas and the actors wear generically black period-suggestive clothing, allowing the only visual relief to come in the form of the red stage blood spewing in the violent scenes. This lack of design innovation misses opportunities for greater definition, particularly as the production is cast with performers who must play multiple roles. The audience is left wondering why, after his rejection of Cordelia, the “Duke of Burgundy” is now in Goneril and Albany’s court because the costume detailing is far too subtle. Lighting by Neil Austin is also spare and could have, in general, been put to greater effect against those flat expansive spaces.
This production at BAM clearly demonstrates why King Lear is considered one of Shakespeare’s great masterworks. And in the hands of consummate performers like Jacobi the production is sure to find its audience.