How many productions of KING LEAR have I seen? I remember Morris Carnovsky, Paul Scofield in the great Peter Brook production, John Wood, Robert Stephens, Brian Cox in a fascinating Deborah Warner production, Ian McKellan. I also remember a production at Playmakers Repertory Theatre in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that ranks as the worst production of Shakespeare I have ever seen and one of the worst productions of any play I have ever seen. I shouldn't just mention Lear; for the play is as much about Edgar, Gloucester and Kent as it is about the old king.One thing is clear: there is so much to this play that no director or cast can get it all and different productions emphasize different aspects of the play. In the recent Trevor Nunn production, McKellan brought out the humor in Lear's role while the fine Ben Meyjes made Edgar's suffering almost unbearable. No production made me think more about this fascinating, dark play than Michael Grandage's current production at the Donmar. This is ironic since the playing area, the ceiling placed over it and the edges of the circle are covered in whitewashed boards. Visually, the production looks washed out, like over-exposed black and white film. The characters are mostly in black -- the few bits of color are almost shocking. The lighting is almost entirely white. On this bare set -- no furnishings until a throne is brought in for Lear's reunion with Cordelia -- Grandage offers a fast paced Lear. Actors for one scene are entering as characters from the previous scene speak their final lines. There are enough cuts -- mostly in the final acts -- to get the production to two hours and fifty minutes including the interval. There are no armies of attendants. In this small theater, KING LEAR can be performed effectively with an ensemble of sixteen fine actors.
What this KING LEAR offers is a stark picture of good and evil, striving and suffering. The play is almost a moral parable of what happens to a world when people surrender their most important human trait -- compassion. In this stark production, the heartless grasping of Goneril, Regan and Edmind seemed all the more frightening. They were so matter-of-fact in their brutality. There was no chewing of the scenery from the nasty sisters or Edmund, just simple, cold ambition, greed and desire. One missed the usual sense of humor actors find in Edmund. Alec Newman's bastard was too heartless to be funny, but his interpretation worked in this context. The good characters were superbly played. Reliable Paul Jesson, who always gives a superb performance, was a sweet, clueless Gloucester, trying to do the right thing but unaware there could be such evil. Gwilym Lee's Edgar, the polestar of good in this production, evolved through his testing into a real hero. One saw Lear and Edgar as the central relationship in the play -- mad old man learning to "see better" and young man feigning madness while he learns about human suffering. Two naked souls in the tempest. It seemed absolutely right that Edgar got the last word. Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell wisely did not play the usual harridans. They were women who simply had no feeling for their fathers or their husbands. All they had were anger and appetites. Yet I did, as one must, feel that right was on their side in the first hour of the play as they suffered their father's hundred knights and invective. You should not see Goneril and Regan's villainy right away. I didn't think Pippa Bennett-Warner did much more than speak Cordelia's lines. Why is she Lear's favorite and, if so, why isn't she willing to humor him in the first scene? What she says is absolutely rational, but we should see a reason why she won't play the game as her sisters do. Michael Hadley was effective as Kent and Ron Cook ably played the fool as a clown who realized that wit and humor were no antidote to the tempest that was brewing. When Lear and Edgar go off at the end of the first part, the Fool goes off in another direction, never to be seen again (not even at the curtain call). He sees that "Poor Tom of Bedlam" is a fitter companion for the mad king.
Now to Derek Jacobi's Lear. Everything was there. One had a sense that he was on the way to madness in the first scene. I have seen actos make more of certain moments in the first half of the play ("I will do such things as . . .I know not what"). When one sees a lot of Lears one tends to judge a performance by certain moments but here one had to look at the evolution of the character. There were surprises. The whispered "Blow winds, crack your cheeks", as if the storm Lear was invoking was not the one whirling around him. Grandage cut the storm sounds and brightened the lights as Lear spoke these lines to make it a mad, internal moment. He was at this best in the scenes with Edgar and the final scenes. For this seventy-something actor, KING LEAR was in great part a play about age. Edgar and Cordelia become the polestars of good because they revere age, even when the old are cruel, like Lear, or foolish, like Gloucester. Lear, Gloucester and Kent all realize that they have lived too long and seen too much to want to go on. It's up to the young to redeem this fallen world. A minor point, but it is amazing that at the finale of such a powerful performance the smallish, seventy-something Jacobi still carried in the not-so-petite Cordelia.
At the end, after Edgar has spoken those interesting final lines (the text gives them to Albany, but it seemed right for Edgar to speak them. Albany has not really earned these lines.) -- "The weight of this sad time we must obey,/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long" -- the lights brighten and we hear birdsong. The natural world will go on. The sun will rise. Birds will sing. But mankind must live to a higher order than the mere "Nature" Edmund invokes. The three surviving good men -- Albany, Edgar and Kent -- are there. The evil has been purged, but some good people have suffered and died as well.
Michael Grandage's production reminded me that this is one of the greatest plays ever written, perhaps the greatest, but also the darkest. We watch what happens when people do not act humanely and the cost of trying to do good when the moral order breaks down. One can think of big things like the holocaust, or smaller tragedies like the shooting in Arizona last week, a byproduct not only of madness, but also of the total breakdown in civil dscourse in my native land thanks in part to people making millions of dollars being uncivil on radio and television and setting a horrible example of behavior in a democracy. Sermon ended.). Purists may quibble at the cuts and the reassignmnt of some lines, but this KING LEAR does more than tell a story. It gets at the heart of the play. On both sides of us, peopple whispered "Wow" as the lights went down at the end. Brits don't often say "Wow." It was deserved. It was also interesting to note the number of actors in the audience last night. I saw one fine young actor who plays one of the leads in the current National Theatre HAMLET watch intently. Even for a good actor, this production offered lessons in acting.
KING LEAR, directed by Michael Grandage, designed by Christopher Oran. Donmar Warehouse Theatre. January 12, 2011.