A broken-hearted old man slowly enters the stage, cradling the body of his beloved daughter and uttering a cry of despair that will shake you to your core. This one scene could be the entire performance of King Lear. It is not; instead, King Lear an accomplished and artistic production fully formed from beginning to end. But this one scene is so emotional, so fully formed and executed, that those few moments could be the entire show.
King Lear is a notoriously difficult play to produce and the titular role is an even more
difficult one to perform. Often compared to scaling the Himalayas, witnessing Shakespeare’s famed monarch being driven to his own downfall can be an exhausting experience for the audience, let alone for the performers.
Currently in performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, King Lear has transferred from London’s Donmar Warehouse in an outstanding production that, while exhausting, is undeniably worthwhile. Directed by Michael Grandage and starring Derek Jacobi in a devastating turn as the king, this minimalistic production is resonant and sincere, a truly personal and intimate experience.
A searing portrayal of the destruction that hubris and fear can inspire, King Lear follows the aged monarch as he divides his kingdom among his three daughters. Before completing this transaction, he asks them who loves him the most. When Cordelia (a lovely and poised Pippa Bennett-Warner) says she is unable to express her love in words, he promptly banishes her from the kingdom, marrying her to the one man who is wiling to wed a disgraced and disinherited daughter. After receiving their shares of the kingdom, the elder two daughters, Goneril (Gina McKee) and Regan (Justine Mitchell), quickly reveal themselves to be selfish and duplicitous, and Lear finds himself unwelcome in their respective kingdoms.
The character of Lear can be interpreted numerous ways – a selfish parent, a cruel monarch and an immature elderly man are just a few. Jacobi presents the king as an immature child accustomed to getting his own way who does not hesitate to throw a tantrum when he doesn’t. The decision to question his daughter’s love seems more of a spur-of-the moment idea than a carefully calculated political move.
Performed by Jacobi, Lear is a fearful old man. It is his terror of aging and becoming insignificant that prompts his questioning of his daughters, and, ultimately, the destruction of his family. It is one of Shakespeare’s bitter ironies that Lear’s fear of being of no consequence is what causes his untimely death.
Brokenhearted by the betrayal of his elder daughters, Lear flees to the woods, accompanied by the Fool (an excellent Ron Cook). It’s a common theme in literature that to enter the woods is to enter madness, and King Lear is no different. Jacobi’s portrayal of Lear’s insanity is nothing short of tragic to witness. As he wanders the stage, adorned with a crown of thorns, speaking in a whispery, high-pitched voice, one is reminded of a lost child looking for his parents. The storm scene that takes place in the woods is beautifully staged; it’s truly a wonderment to behold.
Jacobi’s performance is nothing short of mesmerizing, and he is joined onstage by a capable ensemble of supporting actors. As Goneril and Regan, McKee and Mitchell give understated, interesting performances. Watching them plot and scheme against their father, and eventually against each other, is fascinating. It’s easy to see that they are children of a monarch. Regan’s descent into cruelty, involving a particularly gruesome scene with Gloucester, is horrific. One feels almost as disappointed in her brutality as shocked by the violence of the scene.
The political subplot of King Lear, involving a scheming son and fooled father, is also performed by a strong ensemble. Edmund (an energetic Alec Newman) and Edgar (Gwilym Lee), the sons of Gloucester (Paul Jesson) are all excellent and thankfully, the plot of Edmund’s scheming and Edgar’s forgiveness is easy to follow. But the political aspect of King Lear is not the main plot; the focus of this performance is the devastation of a family. Lear’s last scene with Cordelia is devastating; as Jacobi stumbles onstage cradling his daughter, he utters a wail of despair that is so sincere and heartbreaking, one almost forges the previous three hours of the show. A father has lost his child and his heart is broken. What could be more tragic than that?