Set on a bare stage at BAM's Harvey Theater, King Lear, as directed by Michael Grandage, is a straightforward, accessible production of the popular Shakespeare play. The story, which involves a king and his three daughters, is a recognizable family drama.
Eager to relinquish his duties, King Lear (Derek Jacobi) decides to divide his kingdom between his children. His reasoning is twofold: It will prevent future battles among the siblings over holdings and allow him to relinquish the responsibilities of royalty as he begins the "unburdened crawl toward death."
Before finalizing his wishes, Lear asks: "Which of you shall we say doth love us most?" Two of the daughters, Goneril (a terrific Gina McKee) and Regan (Justine Mitchell) feign affection with hyperbolic expressions of adoration for their father. By contrast, the youngest, Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner), is loving but blunt: "Why have my sisters' husbands if they say they love you all?"
Such honesty leads to Cordelia's exile. And it puts the emotionally demanding Lear in a vulnerable position. He is now dependent on his treacherous kin, who strip him of his entourage, his dignity and finally, his sanity.
The parallel subplot has the Earl of Gloucester (Paul Jesson) deceived about the true feelings of his legitimate son Edgar (Gwilym Lee) by his bastard son, Edmund (Alec Newman.) The various machinations prove just how destructive familial infighting can be.
The cast is uniformly solid -- no surprise given its pedigree. This production is from the Donmar Warehouse, now under the artistic leadership of Grandage. The London theater is known for innovative work, yet this rendition of King Lear, among the most important in the canon (not to mention an actor's career) is notable because it's so clear and unpretentious. The theatrical spark is Jacobi. His descent from monarch to madness is heartbreaking -- and his riveting performance makes this Lear a standout.