I had the privilege of seeing Derek Jacobi play King Lear on Saturday night. He deserved every plaudit heaped on him. Although I’ve enjoyed his work ever since I Claudius showed back in the 70s, I think the moment when I was awed by his greatness was the last few minutes of Utopia, the moment when he turned around after he’d opened the watch and it was as if a switch had been flicked from Good to Evil in an instant. Incredible.
His Lear is vulnerable, childish and frail. I found it very moving, more so than the RSC performance with Greg Hicks last year. I like Hicks a lot but I felt that whole production suffered from the common RSC fault of director overload. Medieval monks and gas masks appeared in rather an arbitrary way which detracted, for me, from the power and poetry of the original.
By comparison, the production starring Jacobi is extremely stark, set in an almost blank white box with virtually no music and only minimal sound effects. For me it worked brilliantly. After seeing around 20 Shakespeare productions since 2008 I’ve concluded that they tend to break down into three main types. FIrst, there is the actor-led production. Tennant’s Hamlet was an excellent example of this. Talented though he is, you are always watching Tennant playing someone else, rather than that someone else. He never becomes invisible and the force of his personality dominates the production. That doesn’t make it bad, but it is a reality that has to be taken into account.
Second, there is the director-led production, or possibly the more accurate term is concept-led. That is, an interpretation coming from someone other than the actors themselves is the predominant feature. Many RSC productions are like this. I mean the kind of thing where you see a Hamlet set in a modern police state, or a Merchant of Venice transposed to Las Vegas. You are being challenged to read the play through that particular lens. It comes close to adaptation, since relatively few Shakespeare plays are performed in an original, uncut text, for the very good reason that in most cases such a definitive version doesn’t exist.
When it works well, this kind of production is unforgettable. An example was the RSC/Baxter Theatre Tempest in February 2010, with Anothony Sher as Prospero. The Baxter Theatre is a South African company, one of the few to play to mixed audiences throughout apartheid. Their Tempest was seen through the lens of African spirituality, utterly vibrant, challenging and a completely new way of looking at the play which somehow felt as if it had been inside the text, waiting to be discovered, all the time.
Jacobi’s Lear was the third type – the Shakespeare-led production. Now, I’m not claiming that fidelity to the Bard is all-important. As I have already said, in many cases we don’t have a definitive text to be faithful to. And sometimes the adaptations that seem to get closest to the spirit of the original are the most free – I’m thinking of Kurusawa’s Throne of Blood, for instance, which went right to the heart of Macbeth without using a single Shakespearian word and transposed the whole thing to the samurai culture, where it fitted perfectly.
No, what I mean is a production that has the confidence to let Shakespeare speak directly, to make both actors and director transparent so that we are reminded all over again of the audacity, wonder, beauty and power of Shakespeare’s poetry. A production that doesn’t go out of its way to strive for relevance or realism (whatever that means), or transpose the whole story to a different time and place and point up parallels or contradictions. In the storm scene of this Lear, the stage went dark and Jacobi whispered with an echo. And it was enough. In fact, it was absolutely electrifying. We didn’t see Jacobi, we didn’t even see Lear. We touched the mind of Shakespeare itself, and it felt radioactive.
Coming back around to David Tennant, it seems to me that everything he does is actor-led. I don’t think people will ever talk about the Doctor’s tenth incarnation. They’ll refer to it as Ten, because it is so located in that particular performance. I’m not knocking Tennant. That’s the sort of performer he is. Matt Smith, however, is a more transparent performer. We look through him, we look through the concept of Eleven, and we see the totality of the Doctor in a way we didn’t with Ten. I can understand why some people like that better. I don’t, personally. But you pay your money and you make your choice.