3 February 2011: Shakespeare, King Lear

National Theatre Live. Donmar Theatre Production. Broadcast live in HD at Amherst Cinema, Amherst, Massachusetts. Directed by Michael Grandage (artistic director of the Donmar Theatre, Covent Garden). With Derek Jacobi as Lear. 3 hrs. 15 min.

Sometimes the simplest of means leads to consummate art. The Grandage production of Lear at the Donmar, one of the smallest-capacity houses in London, at 250, is currently the site of a profound, pitch-perfect production of Shake­speare’s late play. The running time has been cut to a little over three hours, and out of the complexity of two surviving texts, a quarto and the folio, a sure, straight­­forward path of action has been plotted and enacted. Each scene, following the last with no lapse of time, gets immediately down to business and flows swiftly to its conclusion. One has the sense of an inevitable movement toward the grim destiny forecast in the second scene of the play, the division of the kingdom. Jacobi as Lear, white-haired, white-bearded, and clearly old, yet energetic, is what Regan says he is: a man who has ever but slenderly known himself. A map of the kingdom is rolled out on the floor, Jacobi uses a pointer in a kind of loose, vague, schematic way to identify the third of the kingdom he gives to Goneril, and then — it seemed almost like the same third that he gives to Regan. It is perfunctory, and based on a quantitative view of the world and of human emotions.

This sets the action going, along with the disastrous rejection of Cordelia and comparably disastrous banishment of Kent. The movement is swift, headlong, like the storm that is soon promised to occur. Indeed, the entire play has a quality of fierce storm about it. On the other side of that tumult, when finally the other side comes, are not peace and harmony but death, loss, and the deep feeling that the end of an era is upon them: after this, no one again will live so long or exper­ience so much. Shakespeare’s characters, in this production, are isolated by incipient tragedy and suffer terminally for their own crucial lack of knowledge of themselves. This is true of Edmund, whose illegitimacy rankles and who is determined to see that his legitimate elder brother Edgar is disinherited: “I’ll have your lands,” Edmund says of him in his absence — a parallel to the division of the kingdom, it would seem, between Lear’s two elder daughters, once Cordelia gives him “Nothing, my lord” with which to feed his narcissistic hunger for flattery. Yes, the play is about property, lands, and their loss; possessions and their dissol­ution. It forces the question, how much does one need to survive? Lear comes to understand: a beggar is in the smallest thing superfluous, a bare forked stick. Edgar as Tom illustrates the point with his very nakedness.

Under these circumstances, how can anything come to good? Cordelia’s reconciliation scene with Lear is rendered inexpressibly moving, simply by taking the words of the script in all their genuine simplicity. And the death scene at the end, when Lear carries the body of his dead daughter on stage, howling with loss, like the storm itself, is likewise past words moving. As Edgar’s Tom remarks, it is not the worst, so long as we have breath to say “It is the worst.” Of all of Shakespeare’s endings, this one is the most bleak. The ending of Othello comes close, but this is the worst, the bleakest. It leaves us speechless with wonder and loss, and deepest sadness.

Jacobi’s Lear: The ads will say, “A triumph!” and they will be right, so far as the acting goes. Jacobi’s Lear is warm, aware of the need to comfort others, even as he ragefully asserts his kingly rights. His momentary threat to administer a whipping to his license-taking Fool is a mere comical moment in an affectionate relationship that has lasted, it seems, time out of mind. The Fool, is of course, a wise fool, the supreme example of the type, and all that he says to criticize Lear’s preposterously injudicious division of his country is correct. This old man has lived to be old before he is wise. It is the keynote of the play, almost, in Jacobi’s hands: a tragic, disastrous lack of wisdom brings him to this terrible pass. “I should have taken more care,” he remarks ruefully. A gross understatement. And yet he is a man marked out by his patience, his capacity for endurance; a deeply credible character, in Jacobi’s masterful hands. There are three other characters in the play who give him their undivided loyalty, and this Lear, for all his headlong impetuousness and ill-considered judgment, inspires and earns their fealty: they are Kent, the Fool, and Cordelia. This, in a country and a world where treachery and treason abound. Few of Shakespeare’s plays have a drama­turgical economy marked by such stark contrasts of good and evil.

And yet, in this production, while the character marks of good and evil are transparent, and indelible, there is yet at the same time no easy allegorical mapping of the cast of characters. Regan and Goneril, for example, are not the two ugly sisters of a cinderella-like Cordelia. They are beau­tiful women (Gina McKee as Goneril, Justine Mitchell as Regan). Very human, lustful, power-hungry, and acquisitive. And the division of the kingdom in the beginning very quickly begins to foster in them a mutual hatred that, almost before we know it, has led through mutual jealousy (over Edmund’s affections) to mutual destruc­tion. It is a sort of Hobbesian country, in which life is nasty, brutish, and short. And these two sisters, scheming and clear-sighted in their chicanerous purposes, are swept up in the maelstrom of mend­acity and evil generated by . . . who can say? There seems to be no avoiding the “foul fiend.” Gloucester superstitiously blames it on “these late eclipses of the sun and moon,” but over against that is Edmund’s deeply skeptical attitude toward any such foolish belief in astronom­ical signs. For him, the world is a neutral place where ambition and anything else clearly imagined and strongly willed may thrive.

To his everlasting credit, Shakespeare does not come down on either side, but stands back and lets his characters duke it out, aided neither by a benevolent cosmos nor by ungovernable evil, but only by his respect for the operation of the human heart, for better or for ill. “Is there anything in nature that makes these hard hearts?” Lear asks. The answer lies in the mystery embodied in the play, the mystery embodied in life itself.

A word about the setting: completely made up of wide plank boards, “dis­tres­sed,” so to speak, on floor, walls, and ceiling. A box-like enclosure that amounts to a prison, from whence there is no escape. Hardly a stage property in sight; a joint-stool (remarked on by the Fool in the trial scene), a set of stocks, a couple of letters (when Shakespeare uses letters, it’s all right; when Pinero or Wilde uses them, or other inanimate objects that further the plot, it’s deplored as indicative of the much despised well-made play — is there no justice?). Again, these are the slen­derest of means. What the play calls for is superb actors, and not much else. It gets them here, under the enormously capable direction of Michael Grandage.

In an interview with Emma Freud before the play began, Grandage said that Jacobi had told him some ten years before that he, Jacobi, wanted Grandage to direct him in a production of Lear. A decade later, here we have it. Grand­age’s direction is transparent and sure; we are never conscious for a single mom­ent of his inter­ference, either with any actor or with Shakespeare himself. Yet all is sure, crystal clear, admirably well balanced. They rehearsed it for five weeks, and they had been playing it for ten, last night when we saw it, live on the screen at the Am­herst Cinema, in western Massachusetts. A new era of accessibility has been ushered in, and we are the incalculable beneficiaries of it.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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