But it is Jacobi’s Lear that drives the production. And what is truly astonishing is the way he combines Lear’s spiritual trajectory from blind arrogance to impotent wisdom with a sense of the character’s tumultuous contradictions. Even the rubicund features and close-cropped white hair suggest a mix of military autocrat and merry patriarch. And, having entered genially cuddling his adored Cordelia, Jacobi quickly unleashes a monumental fury. That’s in the text. But what strikes one is the disproportionate nature of the rage. When Jacobi threatens Goneril by saying, of her sister Regan, that “with her nails she’ll flay thy wolvish visage”, he pictures the scene with vindictive savagery.
Jacobi’s special quality, however, has always been his ability to forge a bond of sympathy with the audience: one thinks of his Cyrano, Peer Gynt or Philip II…It is a tremendous Lear, to be ranked with those of Paul Scofield and John Wood.
That’s from the Guardian’s review of the production of King Lear currently running at the Donmar Warehouse in London, starring Derek Jacobi. Read the whole review. And this show is coming to New York!
The Guardian was not so kind to the recent Wooster Group show, Vieux Carre, that visited London:
Played boldly but unsympathetically by the six-strong cast, they never transcend their status as standard-issue deadbeats. Their stories may have lit a flame in Williams, but they only smoulder here.
This show is currently playing in Los Angeles. As big a fan as I am of the Wooster Group, I won’t be going. I’m currently engaged in my own personal financial austerity program, and $55 theater tickets don’t belong to it. However, I have been following the press about it with interest. Variety agreed with the Guardian critic, only denounced the acting more emphatically:
whereas Tom in Gordon Edelstein’s stunning Taper “Glass Menagerie” was emotionally invested in the events he both lived and scribed, this guy is in a dreamy absinthe haze, a cut-rate Baudelaire spouting inchoate imagery amped up by the microphone attached to his jock. Bits of text are hazily projected against the rear wall, though inconsistently and sometimes rapid-fire, suggesting the production can’t really be bothered with anything the man has to say.
In spite of my fondness for the Wooster Group, I cannot say I am surprised by these pronouncements. My first Wooster Group show was Brace-up!, the Group’s scrambled rendition of Three Sisters. It was astounding, for all the reasons their shows usually are, but it revolved around Ron Vawter, who played Vershinin. Vawter is one of the greatest actors I have ever seen. Sadly, he passed away from AIDS in the nineties.
I have always found the acting of the rest of the company to be serviceable at best, and pushed at worst. Kate Valk was delightful as the narrator in Brace-up!, but her Emperor Jones was all flash and no smash. She could do the blackface dialect perfectly, but we got none of the sense of midnight-hour desperation that is the play’s subject. Willem Dafoe in North Atlantic initially shone, but as the evening wore on, he became noisome. Bottom line: I think LeCompte the company’s director, understands the cool side of acting perfectly. The hot side? Not so much.
This places me, a bit, on the horns of a dilemma. I love the coolness of the Wooster Group, and if I could bring even a modicum of that kind of dash to my work as a director, I would be infinitely grateful. Maybe someday I will. But I serve another god in addition to the god of cool, and that is the god of heat. I want acting to be impassioned, truthful and compelling. In my experience, it is fairly rare to come across the kind of cerebral sophistication and attitude of playfulness towards the theatrical apparatus, usually a staple of what we might call good “director’s theater”, AND the kind of acting I describe.
But bringing those two values together is what I hope to do with Uranium Madhouse. I want to bring a strong directorial imagination and sense of possibility together with the aesthetic of acting that I acquired from the master teachers I worked with at Yale and have continued to refine and deepen over my six years of teaching acting. Doing the first depends on my ability to challenge myself to recognize my own assumptions about theater and interrogate them on an ongoing basis, and the second depends on extreme judiciousness in selecting actors to work with, and conducting the work with them in such a way that simultaneously challenges and nurtures them.
Tall order. But then again, I’m feeling pretty tall these days. Stay tuned.