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NY Theater Reviews

Derek Jacobi/ Ph: Johan Persson



Stripped to the essentials, this ageless tragedy excoriates anew.

A certain headline-grabbing wedding aside, the British have a way with spectacle that can set off waves of Anglo envy. Watching the physically pared-down yet psychologically amped Lear at BAM’s gloriously decrepit Harvey Theatre, imported from London’s humble Donmar Warehouse, you may be wracked with invidious musings: Why can’t we come up with training programs that turn out such exquisite Shakespearean actors? How is it that this company, directed by Michael Grandage, features only one blazing international star – Derek Jacobi – and yet every single performer, down to an unnamed “gentleman” (Harry Attwell, for the record), demands and rewards our attention?
Jacobi’s Lear, the big box-office draw, is actually the least of it. He starts off strong, displaying the kind of peevishness a monarch might get away with; it’s even conceivable, given Lear’s childish reaction to Cordelia’s perceived ingratitude, that in time he might just as impetuously re-welcome her to the royal fold. His later descent into madness, however, seems over-calculated. Jacobi deliberately pitches his voice high, to a child’s querulous pipe, thereby undermining credibility – pathos, too.
Who wouldn’t be tempted to take a break from reality, when plunged into such a familial viper’s nest? Perhaps the younger Lear was too busy to notice the encroaching venom. You’d be hard pressed to find a schemer more slithery than Goneril (Gina McKee, whose darting eyes bespeak a forked tongue). As Regan, Justine Mitchell at first presents as a classic middle child, intent on shining brightest, at least on the surface, yet she proves an outright sociopath in dealing with the honorable Earl of Gloucester (touchingly stalwart Paul Jesson). Pitted against these two monsters, Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner, a touch too goopy) doesn’t stand a chance.
There’s absolutely nothing in Christopher Oram’s set – a floor and curved wall of white-washed planks – to distract from the action. This is clean, elemental storytelling. To transform himself into itinerant madman, the dispossessed Edgar (Gwilym Lee, exuding nobility of spirit) smears himself with white clay scooped from between the floorboards. Later, the horrendous gouging of Gloucester leaves indelible red blotches against the ghostly white backdrop.
Stripped of pomp, the story’s bones stand out in stark relief. There’s nothing to lavish your attention on beyond Shakespeare’s impassioned outpouring of imagery and emotion.