Derek Jacobi in King Lear
(© Johan Persson)
Derek Jacobi in King Lear
(© Johan Persson)
Director Michael Grandage has done almost the unimaginable in his new production of Shakespeare's King Lear, now playing at BAM's Harvey Theatre: He has made the classic tragedy seem newly minted.

Even casual theatergoers walk into the production knowing, at bare minimum, what happens after Lear (Derek Jacobi) decides to give up his domain to his three daughters, provided they describe their love for him to his satisfaction. His two eldest, Goneril (Gina McKee) and Regan (Justine Mitchell) declare themselves hyperbolically; however, Lear's youngest, Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner), can only admit to filial affection, which causes an angry Lear to disinherit her. Of course, he discovers which of the three truly loves him after enduring the ignominies of his older daughters' duplicity.

What surprises in Grandage's lucid and emotionally harrowing production is how exceptionally intimate the play feels as it unfolds in the confines of an arc of enormous wooden planks from production designer Christopher Oram. (He also dresses the performers in dark clothes from an amalgam of periods that make the piece seem timeless.) No matter how grand the scale of the story (England ends up at war with France because of Lear's actions), this is a Lear that unfolds like a tragic family drama.

At the production's center is Jacobi's remarkable performance as the increasingly feeble and mentally incapacitated King. When audiences first meet him, Jacobi's Lear is an instantly endearing old man, whimsical and sparkling. When crossed by Bennett-Warner's robustly intelligent Cordelia, though, he flies into a fury that's not only verbal but physical, filled with raging caprice. It's a lightning-like transformation that frightens.

Jacobi's willingness to embrace Lear's quixotic behavior is only surpassed by the keenly observed ways in which he allows audiences to witness the extent to which the character suffers from the infirmities of old age. During the course of the production, audiences sense that the man not only suffers from acid reflux but endures several mini-strokes.

What may surprise most audience members is the way in which the performer and Grandage (abetted ably by lighting designer Neil Austin) take theatergoers into Lear's mind after he has been cast out of both of his daughters' houses into a ferocious storm, delivering the "blow winds and crack your cheeks" soliloquy as an internal meditation.

Jacobi's psychologically rich turn is matched by each member of the company surrounding him. Among the most impressive is Mitchell, who makes Regan a riveting portrait of good girl gone bad. Similarly, as the bastard Edmund, Alec Newman seems to wear a lifetime of insults on his shoulders, which he carries in a perpetual posture of servitude that slowly disappears as he ebulliently carries out his angry plot against his father, Gloucester (the heartbreakingly beatific Paul Jesson), and half-brother Edgar (Gwilyn Lee).

Tom Beard and Gideon Turner deliver terrifically detailed performances as Goneril's and Regan's respective spouses, making both characters so interesting one wishes they figured more prominently in the action. And, as Lear's Fool, Ron Cook proves to be a cutting voice of reason as he, like the audience, observes Lear's sad descent into madness.