Shakespeare's King Lear is a famously stormy part and one that actors can look forward to tackling late in their careers. Long after the romantic leads or juicy villains have faded away, you've still got Lear to look forward to. Derek Jacobi has probably been doing that for many years; any good actor would. And certainly fans of Jacobi have been chomping at the bit to see his take on this iconic role, one of the last great roles in the canon that actors get to leave their mark on. (You've also got Prospero, to name just one more.)
I wouldn't want to have missed Jacobi's Lear but I can't be as enthusiastic as the early reviews from the UK have been. He's amusing in the first scenes, a silly old man sopping up praise from his daughters with unabashed pleasure, the doddering right of an old man. For much of the show, he uses a high, flutey voice that underscores the basic weakness of this Lear, a man who is also suffering from chest pains that might be a heart attack or mini-strokes or who knows what. All the emotional turmoil is so clearly of his own foolish making that it's hard to see Lear as having a particularly hard or tragic fall. Strikingly, one of Lear's famous monologues is usually delivered while the actor is swallowed whole in rain and thunder. Here, Jacobi delivers the speech as if it were the unspoken thoughts of Lear. It's memorable but again lowers the man from a titan taking a terrible blow to an old fool realizing too little and too late his folly.
While this relatively modest approach to Lear kept Jacobi from scaling the heights (I never felt emotionally broken by his journey) it does have the positive effect of highlighting the other players. Since Jacobi is surrounded by an excellent cast, that's all to the good. Gina McKee is a wonder of coiled nastiness as Goneril while Justine Mitchell has fun weeping and wailing as the slightly more timid rebel Regan. (Regan of course proves more bloodthirsty in the end or at least more willing to get her own hands dirty.) Their husbands are equally vivid, instead of the pawns they usually are. Paul Jesson as the Earl of Gloucester proved the most emotionally touching character of the night. Like Lear, he turns on the child that loves him the most. But since he's tricked into this (a trick he falls for too easily) we can empathize more. But above all, Michael Kent provided sterling work as the faithful Earl of Kent and Ron Cook was a Fool for the
Everyone was aided immeasurably by a particularly handsome and effective set design by Christopher Oram (who also did the costumes). Oram created a towering back wall of stone-like pillars mottled with age, a touch that's echoed in the wood planking that lines the floor. When storms rage, cracks in the walls and floor are flooded with lights and fog, a simple and effective choice. More importantly, every scene, every moment is overshadowed by that imposing wall of stone which looms over the action like judges or silent observers. It's a pitiless, implacable presence. If Lear behaves like a fool, he'll get no sympathy there.
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.
Note: Michael Giltz was provided with a ticket to this show with the understanding that he would be writing a review.