Last Updated: 8:16 AM, May 7, 2011
Posted: 11:07 PM, May 6, 2011
Did we really need this "King Lear"?
That depends. If you love the play, you may want to catch this production from London's Donmar Warehouse just to see what Derek Jacobi -- of "I, Claudius" and "Cadfael" fame -- does in the title role.
He's fine, of course, but we expect more than "fine" from Shakespeare's tragic, doomed ruler. Our admiration shouldn't be automatic every time a Sir or a Dame crosses the Atlantic to show us how the Bard is done.
This goes for Michael Grandage's production as a whole: While slickly accomplished, this "King Lear" isn't transformative.
Visually, we're following the minimalist trend: stark, mottled-gray set paired with dark swords-and-combat-boots outfits. This understated chic is very BAM.
Jacobi's Lear starts off like a petulant geezer who lords it over his family with puerile glee. After his favorite daughter, Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner), refuses to flatter him, he throws a foot-stomping tantrum and callously casts her off. Bad move: His other children, Goneril (the icy Gina McKee) and Regan (Justine Mitchell), will later reject him.
The elder daughters are usually shown as bitches on wheels from the beginning, but here they just look harassed by their demanding father. It's a very interesting, provocative choice, but it makes their eventual violent turn feel forced.
The single best bit of staging is when Lear gets caught in a tempest. "Blow, winds," Jacobi whispers, as everything falls dead-silent around him -- the eye of the storm, ominous and scary. Light and fog seep up from cracks between the floor's planks, as if a malevolent kingdom lurked underneath. The scene is memorable.
Once madness takes hold of the abandoned monarch, he continues acting like a child, only this time he's a rosy-cheeked innocent -- suddenly we're watching a play about a dysfunctional brood dealing with a cumbersome elder consumed by Alzheimer's. A stretch, maybe, but this type of mind game helps pass the time during the second half's slower bits.
In any case, we'll be able to compare notes at the end of the year, since two more "Lears" are coming down the pike: one at the Lincoln Center Festival this summer (starring Greg Hicks) and one at the Public in the fall (Sam Waterston). Here's hoping.