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A CurtainUp Review
King Lear

Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours/Of men's impossibilities, have preserved thee. .— Edgar
King Lear
Derek Jacobi as Lear (Photo: Johan Persson)
Thanks to Michael Grandage's potent new production of King Lear, starring the superb Derek Jacobi, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, this bleak and sublime play is every inch accessible. Though you probably would never want to meet and have dinner with any of its dramatis personae, you will likely find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat as the familiar story unfolds and its willful characters play out their fates.

The play, as most theater goers know, begins in a fairy-tale fashion, with Lear cutting up his kingdom like a birthday cake, and generously portioning it out to his three daughters, but expecting them to in turn express their filial love to him. While his elder daughters Goneril and Regan willingly play along with this, Cordelia, the youngest, sees through the foolishness, and remains proudly silent. Enraged, Lear disinherits her and goes to live with the other daughters who end up turning him out into the rainy night. The king turned beggar loses his mind as he contends withh a fierce storm on the heath. The rest of the story is a criss-cross of tears and laughter, intrigue and revenge — and, ultimately, of redemption and love.

This Lear originated at the Donmar Warehouse's intimate space (Lizzie Loveridge's review of that production is re-posted after this review). Happily, this British transfer doesn't get swallowed up in the cavernous Harvey Theater. In fact, the brooding Brooklyn venue seems quite in keeping with the epic grotesquerie of the play. And with Christopher Oram's stark all-white set fusing with Neil Austin's lighting, the stage takes on a primal look and atmosphere. Contrasting with this bleached-out background are Oram's chic-looking black costumes, which allows the entire stage to become a shifting chiaroscuro of light and dark.

The evening really belongs to Jacobi. He portrays Lear with meticulous precision. Rather than lionizing the role, he uncannily clarifies the multiple layers of the man's complex personality. Jacobi sharply etches the king's passionate nature early on, and as his fortunes steadily decline, he expertly delineates the ruler as that "ruined piece of nature." Mr. Jacobi does become a bit too campy in some scenes, but consummate actor that he is, he's always in control and will astonish you with his capacity to make his character's purgatorial pilgrimage to Dover and beyond.

While Jacoby is the star and title character, the ensemble acting is also strong. Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell as Goneril and Regan fully realize their tiger-hearted parts. I have seen productions where the two are practically indistinguishable on stage. But here it is clear that McKee's Goneril wears the boots, and Mitchell's Regan the skirt. As Lear's Fool Ron Cook is utterly fearless, whether it's in telling the truth to his master or following him into the heart of the storm. Michael Hadley, as the loyal Kent is suitably an old tough. Cordelia is one of Shakespeare's most memorable women and Bennett-Warner is spot-on in the coveted tole of the loving but silent daughter who refuses to flatter her father. Though Cordelia speaks scarcely more than a hundred lines in the play, Bennett-Warner makes each syllable count. The rest of the ensemble is able, but don't provide any startling new insights into their characters.

Among the most unforgettable scenes is, of course, the Act 3 storm scene. It's both visually stunning and emotionally satisfying. If you ever thought that this scene could only be done right in the movies, think again. This production amply proves that you don't need fancy props and special effects to conjure up a tempest. Equally impressive is when Lear enters in Act 5, Scene 3, carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms. A sort of pieta in reverse, it is by far the most poignant moment in the play and Jacobi executes it with aplomb.

Apart from Peter Brooks' 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company production, subsequently made into his 1971 film version, this Lear is the most cogent rendering of the drama that I have seen. Without being reductive in any sense, Grandage has distilled the plot and sub-plot to its essence, allowing the terrible beauty of the myth to float cleanly to the surface. You might have been baffled by former stage productions, but Grandage has rearrangd Lear's emotional weather and made it a play for today. That said, , Lear is never a lark to watch. However, in this new mounting, the grim story of the mad old king is something to celebrate. Instead of being emotionally exhausted as you exit the theater, you're more likely to feel exhilarated.from watching Jacobi scale the Himalayan heights of Shakespeare's greatest achievement.

Lizzie Loveridge's Review at the Donmar Warehouse

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grandage
Cast: Derek Jacobi (King Lear), Michael Hadley (Earl of Kent), Paul Jesson (Earl of Gloucester), Alec Newman (Edmund), Gina McKee (Goneril), Justine Mitchell (Regan), Pippa Bennett-Warner (Cordelia), Tom Beard (Duke of Albany), Gideon Turner (Duke of Cornwall), Stefano Braschi (Duke of Burgundy), Ashley Zhangazha (King of France), Gwilym Lee (Edgar), Amit Shah (Oswald), Ron Cook (The Fool), Harry Attwell (Gentleman), and Derek Hutchinson (Old Servant).
Sets and costumes: Christopher Oram
Sound and composition: Adam Cork
Lighting: Neil Austin
Fight director: Terry King
Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Production manager: Patrick Molony
The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater at 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene. Tickets: $25-$95. Phone (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org
From 4/28/11; closing 6/05/11.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 7:30pm; Saturday matinees @ 2pm; Sunday matinees @ 3pm
Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes with intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 5/06/11
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Lizzie Loveridge's Review in London

I am the first to admit that King Lear, of Shakespeare's great tragedies, is the one that fills me with little joy at the prospect of seeing it again. But here at London's Donmar Warehouse with Michael Grandage at the helm and Derek Jacobi in the title role is a production to prove my misgivings not just unfounded but as foolish as the old man. This is the definitive Lear for my money, the one to which all others should aspire. Nothing annoys. Nothing grates. All builds a perfect and avoidable tragedy.

The space of course is the star at the Donmar, we are all close enough to be able to pick up on the slightest change in facial expression and, on this occasion, the walls and ceilings and stage boards, in fact every surface bar the upholstery, have been painted in white and grey and pale blue splodges of embracing but understated, abstract backdrop. It brings us into the very heart of the experience that Lear and the other players witness.

Michael Grandage is a great director and credit must go to him for this intelligent and balanced reading that allows Jacobi's thespian majesty to shine. We see Jacobi red faced and apoplectic with the shortest fuse of an imperious and irrational old man. What is remarkable about this performance, despite the cantankerous nature of his early scenes, is the sympathy which Jacobi subsequently elicits rather than the reaction that he has brought it upon himself.

We also feel some sympathy for Goneril (played by the lovely Gina McKee) in providing hospitality for her father's thoughtless retainers, although this is lost when we see her, snake-like acting as a playground bully. The scenes between Goneril and her father are moving when Lear rages at his eldest daughter and curses her in a truly terrible, vicious way. Like father, like daughter we think.

The relationship of Lear with the Fool (Ron Cook) is touching and as Lear says "Oh let me not be mad," it is heartfelt. I still find the Poor Tom episodes difficult to stomach but Gwilym Lee as Edgar imbues the part with concern and without the director giving him any of the zanier portrayals.

Alec Newman contrasts as the other Gloucester brother Edmund, the counterfeit coin with none of the sympathy of Edgar. The storm scene has less standout emphasis here in terms of special effects although there are noises of thunder and strobe lights from behind the revealing and opening slits in the panelling of Christopher Oram's set. Neil Austin's lighting has a complex subtlety. Jacobi, with his eyes shut, almost whispers Lear's storm speech in a truly haunting delivery.

Pippa Bennet-Warner is very well cast as Cordelia. She's genuine and honest as the best of daughters despite her father's cruel treatment and she speaks the verse beautifully. Excellent too is Paul Jesson's loyal Gloucester whose blinding allows Justine Mitchell's manically deranged Regan to show her hatred towards traitors. Of the smaller roles Amit Shah as Oswald, Goneril's servant is interesting to watch for his expressive range.

Traditionally King Lear is a last play -- in this case that's the case for Artistic Director, Michael Grandage who announced his resignation from the Donmar Warehouse earlier this year.

This compelling Lear is life changing and unmissable. Reviewed on 8th December 2010.

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