Is there a play more devastating than King Lear? So absolute and unsparing is its tragedy, it can make Endgame appear blithe, the Oresteia positively jaunty. While most Shakespeare downers end with a restoration of order, Lear concludes with a promise that if life and rule continue at all, they will unfurl more briefly and more meanly than before. So it’s with much trepidation that you take your seat for each new production. But the one currently playing at BAM, by way of London’s Donmar Warehouse, rewards undergoing its anguish.
Sir Derek Jacobi stars as the monarch who oversees his own usurpation. He first appears onstage swaddled in rich robes, imperious and tetchy, allowing his affections to influence his politics. Even in that first scene he seems to alter visibly, oscillating between doting father and tyrannical ruler. He will undergo many more transformations as the show continues. Jacobi provides an impressionistic Lear, as though he had taken to heart Regan’s observation that her father “hath ever but slenderly known himself.” Throughout the play, his Lear tries on various modes and habits, like a man in search of his own being, until the ending returns him to an almost childlike state in which he can finally acknowledge his own ignorance and impotence.
Director Michael Grandage offers a Lear more assured and less emphatic than his Hamlet that played on Broadway last season, but there’s much to quibble about if you’ve a mind to. You can start with Christopher Oram’s set, a wooden fortress almost the height of the Harvey Theater’s arch, angrily daubed with white and gray paint. You might forgive its ugliness (especially under Neil Austin’s sensitive lighting), but you can’t condone how it blunts the room’s acoustics, swallowing the actors’ voices. As in Hamlet, the supporting cast is more variable than it ought to be, and Grandage can’t render Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner), a particularly thankless part, any more than dully virtuous.
Yet as Lear likely stands as Shakespeare’s most difficult work, why not concentrate instead on all the ways in which the production excels: the marvelous malignity of Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell’s Goneril and Regan, who excite and lay bare the play’s ample misogyny; the strange pathos of Ron Cook’s runtish fool; the Grand Guignol gore of the blinding scene; the wondrous storm scene that very nearly justifies that awful set and features Lear’s famous speech delivered not in the accustomed bellow, but in a coarse, wicked whisper that freezes the blood.
Ultimately, the success or failure of the play rests on Jacobi’s yet powerful shoulders. His is an odd Lear, frequently contrarian, often surprising, not particularly sympathetic—at least, that is, until the final scene. When he enters bearing Cordelia’s dead body, his grief seems to rob him of speech, and yet he forces himself to howl her epitaph. These lines are overwhelming, and when Kent, standing over Lear exclaims, “Break, heart, I prithee break!” you feel your own might sunder as well. The play does not stoop to offer redemption, but in his last moments Jacobi unites the scattered elements of his interpretation and salvages a part that can appear unplayable. His excellence might even make you forgive his cracked assertion that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him. Look, Sir Derek, the glover’s son has handed you the plumiest of roles. Why not give him some credit?