Like tens of thousands of other fortunate viewers, I was stunned by the recent “live” broadcast of the Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Donmar is a tiny little theatre (250 seats) located in the Covent Garden district of London, but it has a long arm in the world of theatre. Broadway audiences have recently been treated to outstanding Donmar productions of Frost/Nixon, with Frank Langella and Michael Sheen; of Red, with Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his apprentice; and of Hamlet, with Jude Law in the title role. And now here comes King Lear, with the astounding Derek Jacobi, who’s been around forever (well, at least since TV’s I Claudius, sometime back in the ‘70’s), and just keeps getting better.
In association with England’s National Theatre, this was Donmar’s first foray into “live broadcasting,” which means a regular performance is televised as it happens, and within the same time zone is broadcast to 300 movie theaters in 22 different countries, with some delays to permit appropriate show times around the world. It’s a fascinating project — although maybe not as good as seeing it onstage: you do get the advantage of close-ups, but characters can occasionally be robbed of context, and when the camera work gets too tricky, no matter how effective, it can take us “out of the play” and make it feel more like film, which it’s not. This particular February 3, 2011 performance was broadcast shortly before its run finishes at the Donmar, but the cast and crews can’t yet count on r&r. They now embark on an eight-week tour of the U.K., at the end of which they’ll be on this side of the “pond” for their U.S. tour at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, April 28-June 5. If you missed the broadcast, get your tickets now for wherever it comes close to you, on whichever side of the ocean. If you don’t, you’ll be missing one of the great theatrical events of an age.
I’ve idolized anything allegedly written by William Shakespeare since I was a high school sophomore and stumbled on a superb teacher. But I have to admit, I’ve never been especially taken by Lear. It has always felt unnecessarily long and complicated, long on thought, short on action, and full of people whom I either despised or judged inane and deserving of their fates. But then, I wasn’t 71. And Derek Jacobi wasn’t 72. I’m sure he could have played the role years ago, although until now he has claimed he wasn’t yet old enough. I’m not sure I believe that. But I do know I wasn’t old enough; ever the sophomore, I was only capable of gawking or over-intellectualizing the play.
However, now I am old enough … to know about the fear of being unloved, the fear of madness, the fear of things spinning out of control; old enough to know how the prevalence of sham and pretense undercuts reason and rational behavior. I am lucky enough in my own life not to have fallen prey to the kind of viciousness, guilt, shame and ingratitude that destroys Lear, but as Joan Baez used to sing, “There but for fortune …” I am old enough to know this: that I am a survivor thus far is little of my own doing. Lear, and his daughters, friends, and enemies, at least in this production, are like us all, the products of our times, who “beguile the times.” (Different play, but Shakespeare said it all.)
But … I am certainly not old enough or foolish enough to jump on the back of 200 years of very able Shakespearean criticism and pretend to get into any analysis of the play, or even, for that matter, even get into a conventional review of this production. To feel the impact of Jacobi and his cohorts has little to do with thinking, and it certainly does not require all that intellectual analysis, good and bad, that I’ve been depending on and misunderstanding for years. Jacobi as Lear is simply raw humanity, exposed as proud and foolish, a victim of his own nature. So are his two politic daughters, afraid they will themselves will be victims of his insanity, trapped into otherwise unthinkable depravity like flies onto flypaper; and so is his favorite, Cordelia, suffused with a hippy-like need for honesty at all costs. Here, even the twisted “arch-villain” Edmund cannot seem to help himself, his laughter somehow recognizing the folly of pretending that human nature is otherwise. It is only the fool, of course, who sees it all, and he’s hanged for his troubles.
The trap in which we find ourselves blocked from exploring beyond our mental capacities was wonderfully expressed on stage in the seemingly inescapable pale white box that surrounded the entire Donmar playing space. The harshness and simplicity of it reminded me of our constant need to invent everything else. … that we have only the interpretations our minds make of what little perception we have, and that we sure can’t count on them to be “true,” whatever that means. Stripped of his crown, his friends, his armies, his roles as king and father, Lear’s fear of his own madness was palpable. Nowhere was it more powerfully expressed than in the storm scene. When the volume of the storm suddenly ceased, and we were ushered in dead silence into the interior of Lear’s mind, the man quite literally whispered “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” It made me wonder why all the other Lears I’ve seen and heard bothered to ruin their throats struggling to be heard over the increasingly violent technological sound effects of a raging storm. In no other production have I ever felt the personal impact of that moment.
Inspired director Micheal Granage will be retiring at the end of this year from his post as Donmar’s Artistic Director. I hope he will be replaced by someone with equal or better vision and talent, and I’m sure he will go on to still bigger and better enterprises to satisfy his own creative instincts. We all need to shake things up every now and then. But I suspect he will be sorely missed. I just may have to get up to BAM in New York again in May to see his King Lear again, this time live onstage. In the quest to see past my own illusions, understand who I am and where I fit into the world, it sure can’t hurt.