“If I get so carried away with a spider web covered with dew,” says one of the great writers of the 20th century, “what will I do in the evening when we are going to see King Lear?” It’s a good question: how do we make space on an ordinary Thursday night in May for the relentless freight-train of this play? For a fast-paced performance, just a hair over 3 hours with intermission, that opens up the mad, bad, dangerous King’s agony and pours everyone in the building inside it?
It’s properly billed as a tour de force for Derek Jacobi, which is certainly right. I’ve never been more moved by this role or felt more completely inside one man’s emotional whirlwind. Red-faced and needy, in a few cases breaking into a high-pitched whine — “Where’s my Fool?” — this King occupies the reckless, playful, disorderly heart of loss. In a clever trick I’ve not seen staged before, he makes it clear that the love-test is something the King just thought of as he walked onstage with the already-divided map. The contest of wills with Cordeila casts the old man as the child. In fact, as I sat there, feeling the emotions roll over and through me, I spent a lot of time during the play being reminded of my children. My daughter Olivia, who’s 8, shares in certain moods something like the King’s monomaniac urgency, his inability to seen past or beyond the contours of selfhood. Thinking about her rage and her growing ability to master it, I wondered if Jacobi’s performance could stand to be so deeply immersed in the quicksand of child-egoism. I think the question’s still a bit open — but watching the play, as with watching a child, it was impossible to doubt the truth of the pain.
The high point of the breakneck first half of the show was Lear’s speech to his cruel daughters: “Reason not the need…” (2.4). The emphasis fell not so much on the satire of courtly clothes or adornments as on naked human emotional hunger: “But, for true need / You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.” The patience to endure might be found in Cordelia’s sacrifice, or Kent’s stoicism, or Edgar’s dirt-wallowing — though none of those roles were performed especially powerfully, except perhaps Kent. At that still point in the center of the play, when the King prefers need to reason, it is clear that no daughters or followers or even Fools could touch him.
Something gets lost in the emotional maelstrom, and interestingly I think it was precisely what Ian McKellen got right his big-man Lear that I saw at BAM a few years back: majesty. Jacobi was so tormented and so psychologically available — so able to broadcast his pain throughout the theater — that he didn’t seem quite as powerful as a pre-modern king might. The curses on the daughters were potent, esp on Goneril, who, as performed by Gina McKee, gave the most majestic performance of the night. But the sense that McKellen gave of really being larger than life, “the King himself,” leached out of Jacobi’s emotionally draining performance. Is it possible to have both things at once?
The second act, which opens with a long string of scenes without the King, revealed how much Jacobi’s urgency carried the action forward; only Alec Newman’s swaggering, charismatic Edmund could really pull off a scene in Lear’s absence. Justine Mitchell’s Regan overplayed her joy during the blinding of Gloucster, and her hysteria sat badly after Jacobi’s richer emotionalism. While watching all these scenes, including Goneril’s great laugh line about “the difference between man and man” and the Dover cliff pantomime, I kept thinking about Jacobi backstage, the King trapped in his body, waiting. His madness when he at last re-emerged wasn’t wildly showy — the staging throughout was restrained, with a minimalist set and a great coup de theatre in which Lear whispers “Blow, winds” on a suddenly silent stage — but the emotional force of the night only started up again once he came back to the action.
The only thing you can want after such agony is rest. At the play’s end, when all the family is dead, Jacobi’s red, exhausted face lies cradled in Kent’s paternal arms. Like a sleeping child, for whom the only medicine is rest.