NEW YORK – Derek Jacobi, the esteemed British actor, who is still probably best known to American audiences for playing a stuttering emperor in the 1976 television series "I, Claudius," is giving a magnificent performance in Shakespeare’s greatest play, "King Lear," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre through June 5.
Mr. Jacobi, under the guidance of director Michael Grandage, gives us a Lear accessible for our time, a heroic man, fiercely proud, choleric at times and monstrously foolish. Mr. Jacobi plays Lear as an untamed king who often acts like a child, and who at home rages at his daughters and on the heath erupts at nature in a pelting rainstorm that unhinges his reason. He only finds his way back to his senses and humility in the play’s later scenes after suffering through an ordeal that is at once terrifying and exhilarating.
Mr. Grandage, who first directed this production last season at London’s Donmar Warehouse, presents Shakespeare’s play in its full length without a pause, moving from one sharply etched moment to the next. The three-plus hours of playing time fly by. Most important, this Lear is spoken with clarity and beauty, with an acute ear for Shakespeare’s truth.
Christopher Oram’s setting is made up of tall white and gray spackled planks, brightly lit by Neil Austin, which are thrust right into the first row of the auditorium giving this Lear a new intimacy and making the audience feel like the play is being performed in their laps.
To me, no play of Shakespeare’s is greater in theme or power than "King Lear," and the success of this production lies not only with Mr. Jacobi’s performance but also with Mr. Grandage’s clear-cut understanding of the story Shakespeare is trying to tell.
Mr. Jacobi also realizes that Lear is a larger-than-life character and that he is incapable of littleness, or of small feelings or puny emotions. He is towering in his pride and terrible in his anger. He is terrifying as he curses his daughter Goneril (Gina McKee) when he first begins to understand her cruelty; yet, on the heath, he can be touching as he listens to the Fool (Ron Cook) and heartbreaking when he meets his favorite daughter Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner) again. Lear is a colossus of humanity and weakness all rolled into one personage.
Mr. Jacobi, at 72 years of age, is older than most Lears I have seen. The late Paul Scofield was 42 when he starred in Peter Brook’s now-classic 1964 stage and film version of the play. White-haired and rosy-cheeked, Mr. Jacobi has stature, and suggests in his bearing the grandeur that can cling to an old man who has known greatness. By staging the play so close to the audience, Mr. Jacobi always is in eye contact with theatergoers and is able to pinpoint most of the King’s feelings with his eyes, which are the windows of Lear’s soul. This closeness also allows him to whisper some of the play’s soliloquies or makes them ring out loudly like a trumpet when he lets his rage loose.
Mr. Jacobi is well-served by his fellow players, all of whom give salient performances. As his daughters Goneril and Regan, Ms. McKee and Justine Mitchell have the force and power to make their characters as coldly vicious as they are. As the favored Cordelia, Ms. Bennett-Warner is lovely and touching in the play’s final scenes, when Lear emerges from his madness and reaches for her love and then mourns her death.
The men all seem to be fired with the spirit of the play, and act and speak with Shakespeare’s own passion. As the loyal but contentious Earl of Kent, Michael Hadley is tough and strong; as the gullible old Earl of Gloucester, Paul Jesson is commendable. Alec Newman plays the illegitimate son, Edmond, like a cool, fading rock star. As a typical jeering Shakespearean villain, Tom Bear makes a good man of the Earl of Albany, and Gideon Turner makes a wicked one of the Duke of Cornwall.
What is most extraordinary about this "King Lear" is its pertinent meaning in today’s world. Sociologists have long suggested that whatever "King Lear" may be as dramatic literature, and however exciting it is when played in a theater, its consensus is still relevant today in a way Shakespeare never could imagine.
Even though King Lear is an English monarch in primitive times, his problems of age and family are much like those that daughters and sons of today have to face with fathers and mothers living longer than they once did. And some of those parents too can often become as rash and difficult as Lear.
This could be one of the reasons for "King Lear"’s current popularity; the BAM engagement pretty much sold out before its opening night. Maybe "King Lear," 407 years after it was written, is timelier in 2011 than it was in Shakespeare’s own day.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.