When King Lear arrives onstage he’s all smiles and flirtation, pointing to the spot on his round cheek where his daughter should plant her kiss.
Derek Jacobi captures every nuance of Shakespeare’s self-satisfied old monarch, lapping up flattery like a preening cat. Not getting the tribute he wants from his favorite child, he has a tantrum, screaming and petulantly kicking the map he’s used to divide his kingdom.
Then sputtering and red-faced with rage, he casts off those who love him the most and begins to learn what powerlessness feels like.
Jacobi’s is not a generic portrait of the great man in free fall. Practically transparent, this extraordinary actor lets us in on each new wave of torment.
When Goneril opposes him, we are shocked as Lear draws venom from some deep unholy place and spews it at her. Father and daughter meet across an abyss of hatred, and in his cursing of her womb and sex, Jacobi captures the subterranean darkness of this old man’s soul.
Directed by Michael Grandage, the ensemble from London’s Donmar Warehouse is very fine, with Gwilym Lee a standout as Edgar. He morphs from naive young aristocrat into desperate outlaw disguised as a mad beggar, becoming the moral heart of the play.
Like A Movie
Set on bare dappled boards, with only a few props -- a chair, a stool, a blanket -- the action moves with the speed and fluidity of a film, the actors supported by evocative lighting, music and sound effects.
As the king who finds himself stranded on the heath during a furious storm, effectively done with strobe and steam, Jacobi takes it down to an anguished whisper, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!”
The dark formal clothing is gone, replaced by flowing white garments, as the king becomes a man at last. During the mad scene, a luminous Jacobi strolls on wearing a crown of flowers - - he is young and free, all care gone.
At the last, when he’s rocking the dead Cordelia in his arms, Jacobi expertly plays all the notes of heartbreak in “Never, never, never, never, never!”
We’re with him all the way.
Through June 5 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St. Information: +1-718-636-4100; http://www.bam.org Rating: ****
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(Zinta Lundborg is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)