Sunday, May 8, 2011

Unkingly 'Lear'

Derek Jacobi (left) in King Lear (photo by Johan Persson)
King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage
Starring Derek Jacobi

BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Performances through June 5, 2011

King Lear, probably Shakespeare’s greatest, most towering tragedy, has minefields galore for a director and actor hardy (or heedless) enough to undertake it: first and foremost, it needs absolute balance between high drama and low comedy to become the unbearably moving tragedy that the playwright’s psychologically penetrating poetry points toward.

That Michael Grandage’s production, imported from London’s Donmar Warehouse to Brooklyn, is only intermittently satisfying is due to many things, but mainly because of Derek Jacobi’s Lear. Obviously an accomplished Shakespearean, Jacobi curiously plays the king in an offputtingly over-the-top manner, as if he can't believe that he lucked into this gig and so uses every trick at his disposal to show that he’s worthy of enacting Shakespeare’s most indelible tragic character.

From the start, when Lear enters pitting his daughters against one another in an egomaniacal bit of games-playing that foreshadows his madness, Jacobi makes odd acting choices; his exaggerated, cutesy mannerisms, like pointing to his cheek to make sure eldest daughter Goneril plants a kiss there before saying how much she loves him, grate from the get-go. He also uses a weirdly high-pitched voice, puts inappropriate emphases while speaking famous lines (after saying “Let me wipe it first” as an obvious laugh line, he follows with, “It smells....of mortality,” his ill-timed pause ruining the overwhelming emotion of the scene), and never physically degenerates when madness starts to unwind the king.

Other lesser Lears I've seen (Christopher Plummer, Kevin Kline, and F. Murray Abraham, to name three who also came a cropper in this role) managed to allow Lear's physical state to mirror his lost grasp of sanity; by contrast, Jacobi, except for torn stockings and a crown made of twigs, remains refined and with no hair out of place, seeming singularly unaffected by the experience.

Jacobi does speak Shakespeare's language with clarity and manages to howl with rage in the final scene, finding beautiful-sounding music in those five shattering “nevers” with which he climaxes his strangulated mourning over the body of his youngest and most beloved daughter Cordelia (an unimpressive Pippa Bennett-Warner). And, in Lear’s final breath, he gives the most horrifying exhalation of air I’ve heard. Jacobi isn't a bad Lear, but that he's not a great one is maddening.

Jacobi's frustrating portrayal throws into sharp relief the rest of the cast. Gina McKee's Goneril and Justine Mitchell's Regan make formidable adversaries who look smashing in their elegant finery. Ron Cook's delightful Fool is perfectly situated between wisdom and lunacy, and Alec Newman's Edmund, though a tad obvious as the bastard villain, dashingly dispatches his devilishness against his father Gloucester (played by Paul Jesson with weighty world-weariness) and half-brother Edgar (a strong, articulate Gwilym Lee). If Gideon Turner’s Cornwall doesn't inspire much passion, Tom Beard's Albany and Michael Hadley’s Kent exude true goodness without resorting to clich├ęs.

Brandage's direction of this swift-moving tragedy of broken families and psychological and physical casualities does nothing particularly egregious nor outstanding. Hampered by Christopher Oram's unit set of whitewashed wooden planks that stand in for everything from Lear's and his daughter’s castles to the stormy heath and bloody battlefields, along with Oram’s monochromatic costumes of black, grey and white, the director makes Shakespeare’s all-encompassing tragedy a simple domestic melodrama.

Although we do get to hear Shakespeare's glorious language—which becomes knottier and more labyrinthine as the play continues—by superb-sounding British actors, it’s ultimately not enough to make this Lear more dynamic and compelling.

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