Considered the Everest of any male Shakespearean’s career, King Lear, now experiencing a fiercely visceral interpretation at BAM in a transfer from London’s Donmar Warehouse, is a challenging play for actors and audiences alike. Featuring an intricate plot, including ample off-stage action and frequent betrayal, it’s as easy to get lost – pleasantly so – in a production of Lear as it is to find oneself lost in the negative sense of the word, bewildered.
Thankfully, under director Michael Grandage’s eye, the former proves true. His is a cleanly-designed, straightforward interpretation that reaps infinite rewards because of its trust in an audience’s innate desire for storytelling over spectacle. Starring Sir Derek Jacobi as the retiring king, the cast at the heart of this production speaks the Bard’s verse well and finds ample meaning in some of Shakespeare’s most familiar lines.
The plot, the basic elements of will be familiar to most with a basic knowledge of Shakespeare, is fueled by King Lear’s desire to leave the throne and to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters according to their degree of love for him. His eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, faun over the king and take equal shares. His youngest (and favorite), Cordelia, speaks her true mind and finds herself banished from her father’s favor (and his kingdom). The Earl of Kent, who defends Cordelia, finds himself similarly banished for his upstart nature.
Meanwhile the Earl of Gloucester, deceived by his bastard son Edmund, disinherits his son Edgar, who flees the kingdom. Lear commences to visit his daughters’ kingdoms, met at each with mounting wickedness as Regan’s and Goneril’s arrogance swells. You see – the king is slowly but surely going mad, and his daughters are quick to ridicule he and his followers. As Edmund and the queens’ deceptions are slowly revealed, truth seems ultimately poised to win out but is vanquished.
Sir Jacobi, no stranger to the classics, proves to be the perfect Lear. He begins the play a waning leader, strong-willed but increasingly unconfident. His bark is worse than his bite, but he’s nonetheless quick to confer banishments – earned or not. As the play proceeds, his blunders are revealed to be infinitely more human, his decisions motivated less by malice than by the crippling confusion of age. It’s a compassionate approach to the part that assures that Lear is relatable even in his errors, particularly as he’s ultimately held accountable for his actions.
In what is likely the production’s most daring creative leap, the storm scene is taken down from a fever pitch to a thrilling whisper. Instead of bellowing the lines (“Blow, winds,” etc.), Jacobi, lit from beneath, smoke billowing around him, speaks the lines with a maddening clarity of focus. It’s one of the production’s chiefest thrills, a chance to see this king come, perhaps even somewhat consciously, unglued before our eyes.
As his eldest daughters, husky-voiced Gina McKee and deceptively warm Justine Mitchell are deliciously malevolent as Goneril and Regan respectively. Pippa Bennett-Warner is appropriately clear-eyed as Cordelia, and Michael Hadley is similarly virtuous as the doting Earl of Kent, who covertly aids Lear even after his banishment.
In two of the most prominent of the play’s supporting roles Paul Jesson impresses as Gloucester, whose emotional journey over the course of the play is perhaps the most cathartic, and Ron Cook provides one of the productions standouts as the wise doting Fool.
What’s most impressive about this ensemble as a whole is that coherence seems, genuinely, to be valued above all else. Each cast member manages to present a uniquely defined character within a collaborative whole. Never has King Lear been easier to follow; surely, this is due to the deep understanding of the play evident in the work of Grandage and his cast, who clearly understand the text well enough not to embellish it with unnecessary flourishes or gimmicks.
As important as the players is the production’s simple set and costume design by Grandage’s frequent collaborator, Christopher Oram. Oram, who also designed Trevor Nunn’s significantly grander, less thrilling production of Lear only a few years back for the Royal Shakespeare Company (that production starred Ian McKellen and featured a famed nude storm scene), here takes a bare bones approach, eschewing royal imagery in favor of a whitewashed wooden arc.
Stripped of its ego, this Lear manages to maintain its grandiosity mainly because of its reverence for Shakespeare’s language. On the night I attended, as the play came to a close, audience members could be seen weeping at the honesty of one of Shakespeare’s most tragic plays. In our modern age, when audiences are accustomed to theatrical gimmicks of all sorts, achieving this emotional rawness in a Shakespearean production is no small feat. Michael Grandage and his fine cast have given us a Lear that is truly meant for everyone; accordingly, we should all be so lucky as to witness it.