Monday, February 7, 2011

Beau Derek

Jacobi on the heath at Dover in King Lear.
In between operas last week, I managed to catch the simulcast of Derek Jacobi's King Lear from London's Donmar Warehouse to our own Coolidge Corner. I have tickets to see the production again, at BAM in May, but I thought I would take this opportunity to compare the simulcast experience to the "live" one.

Alas, many of the issues that have been discussed in the Met Opera simulcasts are evident in the National Theatre simulcasts, too. The "show" began abruptly, and was somewhat mistimed so that we missed the first two or three lines of the play. And despite the intimacy of the Donmar (it's only 250 seats), the actors were miked, and also slightly amplified, which gave some exchanges a boosted, ringing quality, and made it hard to tell who had vocal chops and who didn't (Jacobi does). There were also a few electronic blips, and the simulcast seemed to skip a beat when the satellite wobbled or something. The camerawork, however, was restrained and mostly apt - it generally followed what you would expect a spectator's eye to track, along with a few appropriate flourishes (the slow pull-back from the Fool as he disappears from the play was particularly effective, as were the storm sequences - brilliant lightning effects, and a flexible soundscape, allowed Jacobi to whisper his most famous lines from what seemed to be a kind of psychological bubble).

The digital hiccups were mostly minor irritations, however, in the transmission of a production that, if not quite great, was still quite good, and certainly better than the Christopher Plummer or Ian McKellen versions that have recently passed through New York.  Director Michael Grandage has said he considers Lear to be "a political play," and this was evident in his concise cutting of the text; in this version (unlike in so many others!) you always understood just what the balance of power was between the ruthless junior royals.  Beyond that, Grandage doesn't seem to have had any big new ideas about the play, but he has a lean, driving style that served it well, and a directorial habit (a good one in popular versions of the classics) of making each transition a clean statement (at the moment that Lear's mind broke, for instance, Jacobi let out an impressively deranged scream).

At first, however, Jacobi seemed to make a rather lightweight Lear; this was no knotty oak, much less a human Everest, and in the early scenes his anger sometimes sounded more like pique.  But as this particular actor has made a dramatic specialty out of the sympathetic investigation of human weakness, he had a special angle on Lear's crack-up, and his well-known way with delicacy and tenderness made his reconciliation with Cordelia quite moving, and the terrible finale truly heart-breaking.

The supporting quartet of the storm scenes - Gloucester (Paul Jesson), Kent (Michael Hadley) and especially Edgar (Gwilym Lee) and the Fool (Ron Cook) were all at Jacobi's level, and these sequences were therefore tremendous.  Indeed, Jesson and Lee made more of the Gloucester sub-plot than I think I've ever seen actors manage to do; for the first time in my experience, it rivaled the main plot for emotional impact.

Alas, Lear's daughters and their associates weren't in quite the same class.  Gina McKee had her moments as a languidly evil Goneril, but Justine Mitchell made a hash of Regan (she seemed to want to play her as sweet rather than weak), and Pippa Bennett-Warner made a pretty but standard-issue Cordelia.  Meanwhile as Edmund, Alec Newman lacked the sexy swagger than can make the role a show-stopper, and Gideon Turner just seemed lost as Cornwall.

These gaps slowed, but couldn't stop, the drive of the second half of the play, however, and the terrible last scene was just as shattering as it should be; it struck me that this swift, clean version could eventually become known - should it be issued on DVD or shown on public TV - as the current 'standard' version.  There's an encore simulcast tonight at the Coolidge; Shakespeare devotees who can't get out tonight may still want to consider a trip to Brooklyn in May or June.  This Lear isn't perfect, but it's worth it.

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