WHAT is the right age to play King Lear, as rich, anguished and demanding a role as any that Shakespeare wrote? Play it in your prime, before the specter of mortality has stared you in the face, and you risk seeming callow and implausible. Leave it too long, as some critics believed Laurence Olivier did when he played Lear in a 1984 television production, and you may have lost the physical stamina or emotional endurance the part demands.
The great British actor Derek Jacobi had been pondering this question for at least a decade, after the director Michael Grandage first suggested that they do a “Lear” together. Over the years, the two talked about the play and how they might approach it. Then Mr. Jacobi decided it was time.
“I just felt too young before,” said Mr. Jacobi, who is now 72. “As an actor, as an adult, as a maturing older man, I needed to be absolutely more centered in myself, because ‘Lear’ is a mountain to climb.”
The result is an acclaimed production of “Lear” that opened at the Donmar Warehouse in London in December, sold out to ecstatic reviews in an eight-week tour across Britain and is to begin performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday. It had critics reaching for new kinds of superlatives. In The Daily Telegraph, the exacting Charles Spencer marveled at Mr. Jacobi’s “blaze of autumnal glory as an actor” and said that the production was “the finest and most searching Lear I have ever seen.”
For Mr. Grandage, it was the culmination of a long process. “You don’t come across Lears very often,” he said by telephone. “To have an opportunity to direct it with one of our greatest actors, who was at the right age, and to be able to talk about it and work through it over a number of years before you got to do it — that was very exciting to me.”
There are many ways to approach “Lear.” Some directors emphasize the politics and the pageantry, the forces of war spinning around the personal and dynastic tragedy. Mr. Grandage’s production, by contrast, is quiet, intimate, pared down to the essence of the play: a man’s impending obsolescence, the relationships within a family, how one terrible misstep begets worse ones.
The idea was to “get inside Lear’s head,” Mr. Jacobi said backstage at the Richmond Theater in southwest London, one of the final stops on the tour, as he drank a cup of tea and ate a cookie.
“We wanted less of the king and more of the man,” he said, “less of the politics of the play and more of the emotional highs and lows — the sense of family, fatherhood, relationships with the children, and the journey from madness to redemption.” In contrast to his magisterial presence onstage, Mr. Jacobi in person is surprisingly small and slight, with hair and a beard that have gone snowy white. His voice was familiar and thrilling, though he spoke softly to preserve it for the evening’s performance.
“He is someone who completely transforms onstage — his height, everything,” Mr. Grandage said. “He seems to be a bigger person, and that is partly because he lives for going out there.”
The production is quick, under three hours, with no sets, just a white backdrop. Each scene segues seamlessly into the one before. There are only a handful of props.
“The result is of a company of actors offering the words, the situations, the emotions, the relationships with nothing directorially superimposed on it,” Mr. Jacobi said. “One of the great joys about Michael is that he makes the most complex things appear simple. There’s no point where the director is screaming, ‘Look at me; haven’t I been clever with this scene?’ ”
In a way, Mr. Jacobi had always expected to perform “Lear.”
“It is a peak in the Himalayas, part of a mountain range that includes ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ and the Scottish play,” he said (following actorly practice, he never says “Macbeth” in the theater if he can help it).
He continued: “When you’re young you’re kind of judged on your Hamlet. If you get through that hoop successfully, you’re admitted to the classical club. When you’re older, you have to go through the Lear hoop to see if they were right to admit you to the club in the first place.”
As it happens, it was “Hamlet” that began Mr. Jacobi’s acting career, in 1957 (unless you count the times that, dressed in his parents’ clothes, he played make-believe in the city streets as a tiny boy). Born in a suburb of London, the son of shopkeepers, he was, as a teenager, so good as Hamlet in a local production that the show went to the Edinburgh Festival. Mr. Jacobi won a scholarship to Cambridge (he played Hamlet there, too) and in 1963 was invited by Olivier to join the fledgling National Theater.
Mr. Jacobi remained there until 1971, going on to play an astonishing range of parts onstage, on television and in the movies through the decades. He became household-name famous in 1976, playing the poignant, painfully stuttering Emperor Claudius in the BBC series “I, Claudius.”
The role allowed his parents finally to explain to their neighbors what their son had been doing all that time.
“I’d been an actor for 16 years by then, but if my mother had mentioned the National Theater, she might as well have said the National Coal Board for all anyone knew what it was,” he said.
One of the challenges of performing “Lear,” as so often in Shakespeare, is how to make credible the main character’s rapid emotional transformation — how to make the audience believe, in this case, that a father who adores his youngest daughter could become so enraged so quickly that he viciously denounces and disinherits her.
Mr. Jacobi does this, he explained, by establishing Lear in that pivotal opening scene as petulant, temperamental, capricious, irrational. “What we have tried to do is show that this question of which of the three girls loves him the most is actually something that comes off the top of his head right then,” Mr. Jacobi said. “It’s a terrible accident; it wasn’t meant to be that at all, and it triggers something in the moment. The rest of the play is the result of the moment.”
Then, during the storm scene later on, everything suddenly goes quiet. Instead of roaring and cursing at high volume against the elements, as Lear does in most productions, Mr. Jacobi’s Lear whispers the famous words — “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” — so that they appear to be his very thoughts, coming from inside his head.
“His madness is almost a childlike thing,” said Ron Cook, who plays the Fool in the production. He described Mr. Jacobi as “mild-mannered, lovely and not starry at all,” generous and complimentary, unfailingly vigorous and committed.
“During the storm scene, they were wondering whether to have real rain, but he doesn’t need it because he’s already soaking wet” with sweat, Mr. Cook said in a telephone interview. “He’s not only putting energy into it, but it’s always slightly different every time — changing an emphasis, taking something down or putting a slightly different emotion on it.”
Mr. Grandage said that he sometimes worries about how much of himself Mr. Jacobi gives to the play, particularly in the final scene. He appears almost unbearably frail then, his face red and his body diminished, sobbing pitiably night after night as he cradles Lear’s dead daughter, Cordelia, in his arms and wills her with all his heart to come back.
“He never does it on any kind of autopilot, and it does frighten me,” Mr. Grandage said. “He always takes himself to the full emotional place with no faking it. Sometimes actors find shortcuts that the audience doesn’t know about, but Derek has no interest in that. He does it 100 percent every night.”
“Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little,” Lear begs, and Mr. Jacobi said that when he delivers the line, he thinks of a loss in his own past. (He didn’t elaborate.)
“That’s what’s so wonderful about Shakespeare,” he said. “That’s what anyone who’s ever lost a loved one wants to say, and it’s unbearable.” Mr. Jacobi, who has shed about 15 pounds because of the rigors of the tour, said cheerfully that he was feeling fine. “I’m very lucky to have such a robust constitution,” he said (though he does wear a back brace under his costume in order not to pull anything in the scene when Lear carries Cordelia’s body onstage).
As the interview wound up, Mr. Jacobi said he was preparing his daily preshow ritual, in which he lies flat on his back and recites all his lines in his head, a process that takes about 45 minutes. Then he does his vocal exercises.
Knighted in 1994, Mr. Jacobi has been with his partner, the actor Richard Clifford, for more than 30 years; the two were joined in an official civil partnership ceremony in 2006. He believes that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone else, not the “man from Stratford,” as he calls him — though that is another story.
He loves his job, he said, and called acting “a glorious profession where you don’t have to retire — you can go on until you drop.”
He added: “Lear and I have absolutely nothing in common. This is the glory of being an actor.”