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Derek Jacobi is finally ready to play the lead role in KING LEAR, now at BAM (photo by Johan Persson)

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St.
Through June 5, $25-$95 (limited availability)

Some of the best theater to be found in New York City in 2011 has been happening in Brooklyn, where BAM’s spring season has included the Abbey Theatre’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman and Geoffrey Rush in the Belvoir St Theatre presentation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman. The magic continues with the Donmar Warehouse’s take on one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, King Lear, which runs through June 5 at the Harvey Theater. In September 2007, BAM presented the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Lear, starring Ian McKellen and directed by Trevor Nunn; this time around, Sir Derek Jacobi plays the aging, enfeebled king, directed by Michael Grandage. This more stripped-down interpretation focuses on the powerful emotions experienced by the two fathers, Lear and the Earl of Gloucester (Paul Jesson). After being lavished with empty praise from daughters Goneril (Gina McKee) and Regan (Justine Mitchell), Lear is furious that his youngest and favorite child, Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner), does not similarly overstate her affections. Jacobi’s whole head flushes red as if on fire as Lear disowns Cordelia, then banishes the loyal Earl of Kent (Michael Hadley) for defending her. Meanwhile, Gloucester is being deceived by one son, Edmund (Alec Newman), into thinking that the other, Edgar (Gwilym Lee), is plotting against them. Thus, brother conspires against brother, sister conspires against sister, and children conspire against parents as two once-noble families disintegrate into treachery that leads to acts of severe violence. Jacobi — who has been waiting ten years to appear in the part and finally felt he was of the proper age (seventy-two) and experience to portray Lear — is a controlled ball of rage as the deeply flawed king, explosive in one scene, tortured and meek the next. The rest of the cast is solid, particularly Jesson as the doomed Gloucester and Lee as his wrongly accused eldest son, who disguises himself later as the forest madman Poor Tom. (Newman, however, chews too much scenery as Edmund.) Christopher Oram’s costume and set design nearly steal the show; virtually all of the characters are dressed in black, presenting a stark contrast to the stage, composed of long, fading whitewashed boards that emphasize the physical and psychological destruction to come and is especially effective in a smoke-laden lightning storm (courtesy of Neil Austin and Adam Cork) that sends shock waves through the Harvey. Grandage does threaten to go a bit avant-garde and over the top after intermission, but he brings it back around to a more traditional narrative for the heartbreaking finale to yet another memorable Lear, with another memorable lead performance. (There will be an Artist Talk with members of the cast following the May 12 show, and Shakespearean scholar and author Stephen Greenblatt will give a talk on Lear on May 15 at BAmcafé. Interestingly, Jacobi — who chooses to leave his clothes on in one critical scene, as opposed to McKellen, who bared all back in 2007 — has been outspoken in his belief that the Bard did not actually write any of the plays he is credited with.)

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