That’s Goneril’s assessment of her father almost immediately after he comes to live with her, and it is the touchstone of Derek Jacobi’s highly-acclaimed performance in the title role in the Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear, recently mounted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From his first moments on stage, Jacobi is playing, putting on a show for his daughters and his courtiers alike. And when Cordelia doesn’t play the part the way he wants her to, he throws a tantrum.
It’s one way into Lear. The King is a big tantruming baby. If we hear the horrific language he hurls at Goneril issuing from a mature and sober mouth, we really wouldn’t blame her for locking him out in the storm - no man should speak that way to a woman, to say nothing of a father to a daughter. But children can say the most awful things, and never even consider the pain they cause.
On the other hand, we must believe him when he says he is “every inch a king.”
That’s the challenge of playing Lear in a nutshell. The same man - in the same scene! - must say he is “every inch a king” and make us believe he is, and only a few lines later must tease those who have come to succor him by cackling, “Nay, if you get it, you shall get it with running,” and scampering off like a five-year-old. For me, Jacobi didn’t quite rise to the first half of that challenge.
I’m not sure I’ve seen a Lear that did, though, so I can’t count that as a serious knock against the production. And Jacobi had moments of sublime incandescence - most especially in the scenes with the blinded Gloucester, when Lear has transmuted into his own Fool (the marvelous Ron Cook having left the story midway through, as the Fool inexplicably does - and this production doesn’t resort to any tricks, like having Lear kill his Fool in his madness, to explain this departure; it just leaves it a mystery). Jacobi is at his strongest here, when we can’t tell just how mad he is, how affected he is by Gloucester as Gloucester weeps for him and we weep for them both.
But the distinct pleasure of this production was the portrayal of the two elder daughters. Pippa Bennett-Warner was a lukewarm Cordelia, with no great chemistry with her father, but Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell were the most interesting Goneril and Regan I’ve ever seen. I’ve usually seen Regan portrayed as a one-dimensional villain, an oily, hateful creature, while Goneril mostly gets to be angry - and, given how her father talks to her, at least she has some cause. But McKee’s Goneril was a more complicated creature, the oldest child of whom dad always expected the most and who dutifully delivered, even though it meant marrying a man for whom she had no affection, only to find herself passed over in favor of Cordelia, the baby. She’s belatedly achieving independence from her father, enacted, unfortunately for them both, through cruel domination of him. But she’s also discovering her own erotic life, with Edmund, and her own political power, both of which quests bring her into direct conflict with her husband. (And I greatly appreciate that Tom Beard did not play a neutered Albany, but rather as a forceful, healthy man trapped in a marriage - presumably entered into for reasons of state - to a woman he never loved.)
And Regan, as played by Mitchell, far from being a cackling villain, is almost naive, the overlooked middle child who always followed her stronger-minded father and sister. When Regan, in the love test, says, basically “what she said, but more so,” it usually comes off as simply obvious fawning. But this time, it seemed revelatory of character: this Regan doesn’t actually have her own words, her own perspective. She doesn’t turn into a villain in her own right until very late, with the blinding of Gloucester, when she suddenly discovers a heretofore unknown bloodlust; now she giggles and cackles, but since we know that only recently she was following her cruel husband around like a puppy, the transformation is quite chilling.
These are two long, terrible journeys the older sisters go, and I applaud the actors and the director for finding the path and taking us along.
Inevitably, I suppose, the usual strength of the Goneril and Regan stories mean a relatively weaker Edgar-Edmund story; both Gwilym Lee and Alec Newman do fine work, but there wasn’t the same urgency that there sometimes is to their story. We don’t feel, as we sometimes do, that the consequences for the entire cosmos will be dire if Edgar fails and Edmund triumphs. On the other hand, I was pleased that Newman’s Edmund was less-calculating than is often the case. This Edmund is an improviser, not entirely convinced himself that he is succeeding as well as he is, barely keeping one step ahead of something snapping at his heels. It’s a feeling I usually associate with Iago rather than Edmund, and it made for an interesting choice.
Lear is one of those plays that can be done with nothing but a bare stage, and that also can survive, even thrive, in a large-scale production. This time the tragedy played out on a starkly empty stage of tall, rough-textured white pillars. (It was almost startling to see an actual joint-stool in the trial scene.) The whiteness was exceptionally effective in the blinding scene; when Cornwall pops out the first orb, and dashes it against the wall, we suddenly see red - and it does something to her when Regan sees it, too. But the one “big” effect of the show left me cold. Rather than having Lear bellow and holler to out-rage the storm, the blowing suddenly quiets, the Fool stops his staggering and swaying, and Lear, lit from below the stage, whispers his rages into a mic. It’s a very cinematic effect - the storm going quiet, time slowing down, the words communicated in voice-over - but I think it would be cheesy on film, and it didn’t work for me on stage either. I thought, “oh - the storm is in his mind” - but I didn’t feel like the storm was in his mind. But this might also have been Jacobi’s delivery, which was, for lack of a better word, stagey, as it often was in Lear’s set-piece speeches.
Lear is one of those plays that really is too big to encompass completely in one production. This one drives home the political dimension of the play; that one is more of a family drama; another is a powerful Christian allegory - and all are right and none are the thing itself, nor can they be. But Harold Bloom is wrong that this is a reason to prefer the study to the stage; you will never feel all these Lears if you do not see them. It’s just a reason to see many, many good productions with different emphases. This one left me with a much more complex understanding of the older sisters than I had had before, and with a dread of second childishness and mere oblivion. That’s more than enough to make it worth the seeing.