Grandage sheds new light on old ‘Lear’

By Kate MacDonald


It is certainly a tragedy when one’s father spirals slowly into insanity. In Michael Grandage’s new on-stage adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia discover the slow spiral of insanity becomes even more complicated when daddy is the king.

Most Americans are familiar with the story of “King Lear.” The senile king decides to divide up his kingdom between his three girls, based on how much love they profess to him. The selfish Goneril and Regan use their sharp tongues to secure their land, while sincere daughter Cordelia refuses to play the game and is banished.

In a fit of rage, Lear banishes his dear friend Kent. Meanwhile, Lear’s other friend Gloucester is also being fooled by his unworthy offspring. Staying with his two “faithful” daughters, who try to rid themselves of their father, Lear slips deeper into insanity, eventually forgetting his identity and wandering the country, while the girls plot and scheme.

Shakespeare’s “King Lear” makes it clear which characters are good and which are bad. However Grandage’s version makes things a little less crystal clear for audiences as he delves deeper into characters’ psyches.

The “King Lear” that’s currently being shown at Amherst Cinema is a recording of a live performance at London’s Donmar Warehouse, filmed on Feb. 3. It stars Derek Jacobi as Lear, who is well known for other Shakespearian roles and his recent work on “Gladiator” and Oscar-nominated film, “The King’s Speech.”

Most notably, the roles of Goneril and Regan, played by Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell respectively, were deeper than the original playwright made them out to be. Audiences don’t necessarily see them as the ungrateful daughters they’re meant to be. It’s a testament to Grandage’s directing and the ladies’ emotional acting that they come off as troubled women caught in a bad situation, who only turn sinister at the play’s end.

Jacobi shines in the lead role. He succeeds in acting out the full spectrum of Lear, from his role as a parent being taken advantage of, to a man afraid of his own mind, to finally, a now-defunct, insane king. In perhaps the best scene of the play, when Lear realizes he’s becoming mad, Jacobi’s emotions are almost tangible.

Despite the great lead and supporting performances, it is Alec Newman, as Gloucester’s evil, bastard son Edmund, who steals the show. Newman plays Edmund as sneaky and cunning in a nearly crazed manner. His performance, from beginning to tragic end, is positively captivating. Even those who have read “King Lear” were on the edge of their seats, waiting in suspense for Newman’s next move.

At the end of the performance, the audience in London gave actors a long standing ovation, and the entire cast took bows – twice. The play could have easily been out-of-touch and uninteresting, giving audiences a look at a completely foreign time without securing anyone’s interests. However, the actors’ performances were enchanting, even funny, and at no point did a scene lag.

The set designers’ minimalistic approach – a nearly bare background – allowed the actors to control the audience’s focus. The plain setting was built with aged timber. The absence of buildings, platforms or essentially, all props other than the occasional sword definitely contributed to the actors’ successes without taking away a single scene’s effect. Lighting is used effectively to show different settings, and a very neat lighting trick involving lighting the area between the boards made them appear to be trees.

The different dark and sepia tones of light paired with loud horns and drumbeats enabled audiences to follow the change of settings or acts without strain.

There are some parts and roles that were not played well. Cornwall, for instance, came across as a loud frat boy instead of the duke he was supposed to be. Pippa Bennett-Warner as Cordelia could have portrayed her character differently – it seemed like she just tried too hard. During the death scene, in fact, she made little effort to appear dead, instead panting onstage.

Many times Regan was portrayed as an emotional, almost sniveling woman, instead of the strong-willed sister she was originally written to be.

Despite a few odd character flaws, there wasn’t much that took away from this play. This installment shows “King Lear” isn’t just some seventeenth-century dramatic play, but it is an understandable, funny and relevant story which remains a classic.

NT Live will also be featuring other recorded plays at Amherst Cinema. Danny Boyle’s (director of “Slumdog Millionaire”) “Frankenstein” will appear mid-March through mid-May, while “The Cherry Orchard” will be its summer feature. Those interested in “King Lear” can catch it again on Feb. 27 and Mar. 2. Tickets are $24.

Kate MacDonald can be reached at [email protected]