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Power and Freedom Battle Within King Lear Hot

Roseanne Wells
Written by Roseanne Wells     May 14, 2011    
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Power and Freedom Battle Within King Lear

Photos: Johan Persson

  • King Lear
  • by William Shakespeare
  • BAM: Brooklyn Academy of Music
  • April 28-June 25, 2011
Acting 5
Costumes 4
Sets 5
Directing 5
Overall 5

Donmar Warehouse does New York a great service by bringing its King Lear to Brooklyn Academy of Music. This spare but emotionally intricate production draws out the heart of the play and leaves it bare for all to witness. In addition to the tragedy and horror that are so keenly felt, Director Michael Grandage dregs an incredible amount of humor and silliness from the characters and his actors, throwing the familiar emotions into stark relief. His hand as director and his consistency is felt in all aspects of the play. His scene and costume designer, Christopher Oram, sets tall panels, slightly bowed towards the audience, on stage to cut the space while creating depth, drawing in the audience's eye.  The dark gray to white neutral palette that Oram uses feels unclean and tainted, like dirty snow, and frantic brushstrokes make hasty, swirling movement, as if the cold front of the storm is moving in. The cast, dressed by Oram in sumptuous clothes with simple colors, is distinguishable enough but part of a whole.

Derek Jacobi as King Lear is a powerhouse, with the voice and physicality needed to tackle this role as well as the experience to develop the character in new ways and bring the viewer into his story. By turns petulant and rash, easily persuaded to laughter, or suffering from pains in his heart and stomach, his Lear seems to be the essence of power and frivolity trying to cohabit the same man. One scene he is laughing like a drunk frat boy with his fool, the next demanding respect from his daughter's servants for being the king and not his daughter's father. Jacobi exploits the royal we--it pops up so often in the play--that there was a feeling that he would change the lines to include more of it if he could. He holds an (unstable) aura of power around him, even when his court only consists of a few men and a joinstool.

The moment when Jacobi first confronts the idea that he could be mad, you can see the fear and panic rush to his face. Lear had never considered the idea that he could be wrong, much less that he is losing his mind. In a very powerful and dramatic scene, Jacobi seems to surrender his worldly powers and faculties to the elements of the storm, merging with nature and losing himself in the moment. Only, he does not get them back after the moment is gone. Lear is still self-absorbed and demanding--in other words, a king; except that he has an obsessive desperation to be heard, seeking any audience who will listen and obey to boost his ego. Jacobi also embodies the madness of a sadistic child, as force of will and innocence do battle in him, this time without his knowledge or consent. When Cordelia and Lear are finally reunited, Jacobi is seated in a chair--the first time in the play, and it shows his complacency with his current state. The king is tired, even weary of his madness, like a coat he doesn't want to wear anymore. The point of hope for Lear is long past gone, but there is nothing for us to do but watch as everything unravels.

In some productions, it can be hard to tell the two other sisters apart: you see they are wearing different clothes, married to different men, speaking different lines, and yet there are no character distinctions between the two--like Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

These two are different. These two stand out. The actors make all the difference.

Gina McKee as Goneril is the smooth charmer, the serpentine flatterer: she knows how to look grave and sincere as she butters up her father, a cold sneer towards Cordelia. As she embraces him, McKee sees her youngest sister's weakness and calculates that she doesn't have the guts to be ambitious. She draws Regan into her confidence, and McKee plays her like a virtuoso with her instrument. Goneril is hard-hearted and determined--but when she makes her move on Edmund, she doesn't anticipate the results. McKee unbuttons her dress to give Edmund her necklace, and it awakens her sexuality that she didn't know was sleeping. But as she falls to petty jealousy, we see McKee's commanding Goneril become nothing but a spurned lover who kills herself in desperation, cornered like a small animal.

Even as Goneril stumbles, Regan finds power. Initially Justine Mitchell is too melodramatic to be as successful a manipulator as her sister, and she even seems to have some understanding towards her father until McKee wears her down. She is weak-willed and selfish, and under Goneril's persuasion, she spurns her father. We can see Mitchell's confidence grow, her taste of success in denying Lear inciting a lust for power. Mitchell revels in the torture of seemingly-treacherous Gloucester and laughs when her husband stomps on his cut-out eye. And when she needs a new husband, Regan turns a tendency for weeping to her advantage. Rather than imitating Goneril, Mitchell uses her feminine charms to replace her dead man for a new one.

Though why either one of them would want Edmund is a bit of a mystery. Alec Newman verges on hysteria; his emotional journey for Edmund starts so high that there's no where for him to go. Instead of coming off as a feckless but clever, irresponsible traitor, his Edmund is like a spoiled bratty child. Though, to be fair, there is some truth in that depiction. In stark contrast to Newman's unrefined look, Gwilym Lee as Edgar looks preppy, in a sweater tie and slacks before he becomes the haggard Poor Tom. Lee is a very fine actor: clean-cut Edgar starts as an extreme pacifist, not even willing to participate in the fake sword fight that Edmund engineers. We can see the contrast of when he is Edgar playing mad Poor Tom and when he is himself; yet as he transitions out of his disguise and regains his strength, we can see that he is changed by the experience--for good or for ill. Of course, it is really poor Gloucester who gets our sympathies: the notable Paul Jesson, so ignorant of the politics around him, at one point puts on his reading glasses but has no idea how little he sees.

There are many other cast members who help round out this wonderful production. An arrogant Cornwall (Gideon Turner) is handsome but cruel, throwing one of Gloucester's bloody eyes against the wall after cutting it out. Albany (Tom Beard) is a voice of reason but too late in recognizing the mire surrounding him. Pippa Bennett-Warner as Cordelia is bright but honest, not knowing that it makes her a target in a court of fools and liars. In several different moments, it looks as if she almost takes it back, for she would rather be kind than strong-willed. There is no reverse, but when Cordelia sees Lear again, after he is worn down by his madness and stormy passage, Bennett-Warner forgives all wounds. Kent (Michael Hadley) has an admirable and fiery dedication that one audience member remarked after as "beatific sacrifice." Ron Cook as the Fool has great comedic timing, milking the text and his fellow actors for all they've got. But as Lear becomes truly mad, Cook is slighted, the Fool replaced by Poor Tom at the king's side, and he leaves with a saddened look of finality on his face. He is never seen again.

Some audience members were vaguely uncomfortable at first, laughing so much in King Lear. But Grandage doesn't do it lightheartedly; rather he exploits the text for laughs to heighten the absolute tragedy. For "with great power comes great responsibility"--a lesson that King Lear should take to heart.

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