Wednesday, March 2, 2011

National Theater Live: King Lear

Derek Jacobi isn't one of my favorite actors. I know he's very well thought of, but I often find his delivery of the Shakespearean line to be something akin to thundering down the hill in a runaway train and crashing in the valley - that's the end-stop - below. Over and over and over again, for hours on end. It wears me out.

 HOWEVER, last weekend I attended (thanks to the Shakespeare class teacher at the university where I work) a telecast in a Portland theater of the well-reviewed National Theatre Live/ Donmar production of King Lear, starring Jacobi. We haven't gotten to King Lear yet - difficult as it may be to believe, the Donmar does not schedule its productions around What Shall Shakespeare Say Today - but these telecasts don't come here too often, and I really wanted to check it out, whether Jacobi was the star or not, and never mind the reading schedule. And I'm happy to report...

that I really, really, really liked this version of Shakespeare's story of a failing old king who wishes to transfer power to his daughters, and his misjudgment of their love for him. Especially noteworthy were...

Goneril and Regan: These are King Lear's two bad daughters. Here, rather than being stock evil-mastermind vipers, Goneril (Gina McKee) and Regan (Justine Mitchell) showed a lot of genuine caring, confusion, and grief about their father, and ultimate weakness in the face of the temptations of lust and power. It was brilliant.

Gina McKee as Goneril

Other Supporting Actors: Nearly every actor was really ridiculously splendid. Where do the Brits get these people? And can we trade in a few of our inexplicably popular American actors for some of those? (no, I'm not thinking of Shia LaBeouf - well, maybe I am...).

Gwilym Lee played the young hero, Edgar. He was quite compelling and sympathetic - an achievement, given that he spent much of the play clad mostly in icky grime. And Alec Newman, who played his half-brother Edmund, was ably able to provide a villain that seemed taken from the local mug shot lineup.

Gwilym Lee as Edgar, aka 'Poor Tom'

Shakespeare girl and I were particularly happy to see our old favorites Paul Jesson and Ron Cook (both were in the BBC Henry VI-Richard III series) giving excellent portrayals of Gloucester and the Clown, respectively.

King Lear: Although it's true that Jacobi looked entirely too healthy to be totally believable, his Lear was much better than I expected. In the first half, he shouted. A lot. He would have been chewing the scenery, had there been any to chew (more on that later). But that's not really so bad for the character of Lear. In the later acts, he brought out an impressive softer side - very insane, and very effective.

Derek Jacobi as Lear

Setting: One of the things this production was trying to get at was the pagan world that surrounds the story. To evoke this they made the theatre into what looked like a rough, wooden box. The roughness and and wood worked well. So did the lighting, which gave the entire production a *cold* look, and provided an impressive natural-forces storm/lightning scene.

Now, a few relatively minor quibbles:

I found the lack of stage furniture and props (there weren't any, really, except a stool, a map, a few bits of paper - oh, and swords and daggers. Lots of those....) to be too stark. Why is it a rule that King Lear is always stark? The ancient people of Britain did not live in monochromed worlds, nor did they all wear the same color. It makes it more difficult to understand what's going on if you take away virtually *all* of the explanatory "oh-this-is-where-we-are" background stuff.

Also, multi-racial casting can be tricky (the more so, because theatre is one of the few places where we expect hiring decisions to be made largely on the basis of appearance). My general thought is that as long as you don't start telling a completely different story through your casting, there's a lot of leeway. However, I would say that this production violated the don't-tell-a-different-story rule somewhat by casting *both and only* the virtuous King of France and his equally admirable love interest, Lear's daughter, Cordelia, with actors of African descent. I cannot imagine that this new subtext was not purposeful, any more than I can imagine that Shakespeare intended the first scene to be about racial tension with the evil Europeans (Lear and his two older daughters and court) on one side, and the noble Africans (his daughter Cordelia and the King of France) on the other. A bit demeaning to both, don't you think? And a corruption of the story: in Shakespeare, it isn't a shared racial background that draws those two together - theirs is a story of nobility of mind transcending cultural differences, not reinforcing them.

Speaking of Cordelia and France - this is a very minor point, but surely there was a bit of money somewhere to get a different actor to arrest Cordelia, rather than assigning that to the guy who plays her OWN HUSBAND! Putting him in facepaint doesn't fix how completely awkward and weird this double-casting is.

With all of that said, I want to make it clear that none of these less positive aspects dominated or distracted terribly from this very fine production. They were some of the few things, really, for a reviewer to complain about!

National Theatre Live Presentation: This was my first experience with the National Theatre Live Telecasts. I thought it was overall a good thing. There were a few presentation issues... for example, they started with an - as far as I saw - unadvertised Shakespeare talk that began 15 minutes before the show (thus giving nearly everyone the joy of doing the hustle-past-your-neighbor theatre shuffle). They then played several videos about how *great* the show would be, if we ever got to see it. Finally it started. It felt a little like going to opening night for a movie, and being shown all the DVD special features first.

Also, at times, it was difficult to understand the actors - especially at the beginning, which was very fast - and the audience was straining. Actors tend to know when this is happening, and adjust accordingly. The problem was that they weren't actually there, so they were adjusting to a British audience that was hearing them in much better sound quality than we were.

BUT! It was totally worth it to see this amazing, superbly-acted play! When I look up Shakespearean productions and actors, I often hear about this or that great thing that's happening in London or New York, and think "I'll never get to see that." But I did, this time! Hooray!

Now, the question is, will YOU get to see it? Well, maybe. You can check here, and see whether it's still playing somewhere near you. I also think it's still in London and will be coming to New York. They say they won't have DVDs available in the future of their live broadcasts - maybe I'm too optimistic, but I don't really believe that.

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