Donmar’s King Lear

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

We were over at the Lowry last night for the second helping of first class Shakespeare this month.  A couple of weeks ago we saw the National Theatre’s terrific Hamlet; this time it was the critically acclaimed Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear, with Derek Jacobi in the lead role.

Lear may be one of the greatest of all Shakespeare’s dramas, but in all honesty it is so harrowing, so despairing, so explicit in its cruelty, that it is not a play that you come away from speaking of enjoyment.  It is more like a test of endurance. Nevertheless, this production deserves all the accolades the critics have showered upon it.  It had four and five star reviews when it opened in December at the Donmar Theatre in London and this touring production brought with it the full original cast. Its reputation meant that every seat for every performance was sold weeks ago,  despite it being presented at the Lowry’s huge Lyric Theatre.

So young, my lord, and true.

King Lear explores questions at the core of human existence: love and duty, power and loss, good and evil.  The essence of story is familiar: Lear, late in life, decides to divide his kingdom between his three heirs, his daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Goneril and Regan, effusive in their professions of love for their father, gain half a kingdom each while the youngest daughter, Cordelia, is banished as a punishment for her refusal to embellish the truth of her love for her father.

If for I want that glib and oily art,
To speak and purpose not…

Always Shakespeare resonates with the present: I pondered how ‘that glib and oily art’  might be being practised now in places like Tripoli and Damascus.

This production had a different feel to the Everyman version with Pete Postlethwaite in Capital of Culture year.  In Rupert Goold’s production, with the noise of screaming fighter jets, the politics of succession and division were very much to the fore.  For the Donmar, director Michael Grandage brings the personal and psychological centre stage – probably reflecting a more Shakespearian interpretation.

The set, designed by Christopher Oram is a bare box of floor to ceiling slatted planks daubed with whitewashed clumps of plaster.  It’s a simple, wintry space that has to serve as heathland and cliff, court and castle. The storm scene was particularly effective: bright flashes of light seared through gaps in the planks while the storm raged.  Unusually, Lear rails against the storm in a whisper.

The chief effect of the minimalism of the set design is to concentrate attention on the performers, led by Derek Jacobi who, at 72 has, in the eyes of just about every critic, produced the crowning performance of his career.  The rest of the cast are excellent too. Paul Jesson’s Gloucester, Gwilym Lee as Edgar and Alec Newman as Edmund, are all superb.

This was Charles Spencer reviewing the production in The Telegraph:

Michael Grandage’s production proves outstanding, the finest and most searching Lear I have ever seen, and in this small space it often achieves a shattering power. But the director and his tremendous company also see the play steadily and see it whole. They capture the great epic sweep of the tragedy, but they are also alert to the detail in the text. Almost every performance seems fresh-minted and psychologically persuasive. I didn’t spot a single moment of hollow bluster.

Christopher Oram’s characteristically simple design, brilliantly lit by Neil Austin, consists of nothing more than whitewashed planks. There is no attempt to evoke a particular time and place. The play itself is allowed to conjure its own world through the power of Shakespeare’s words and the strength and detail of the performances. The tragedy, normally played like a tremendous dramatic symphony, has here become the theatrical equivalent of a searching piece of chamber music. The result is as enthralling as it is deeply moving.

Derek Jacobi’s Lear is initially a testy, self-indulgent old man with a pink face, silver hair and a touch of camp about him. He actually squirms with pleasure as Goneril and Regan deliver their slick eulogies in his grotesque test of love that sets the play in motion. His incandescent rage when Cordelia attempts to wake him from his complacency by telling the truth is electrifying in its intensity.

Michael Billington in The Guardian wrote:

The miracle of Michael Grandage’s production is that it is fast (under three hours), vivid, clear and, thanks to a performance that reminds us why Derek Jacobi is a great classical actor, overwhelmingly moving.

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.

And here he is quite superb in the central mad scenes, taking us inside Lear’s tortured mind without diminishing the king’s residual moments of cruelty. He pursues the beggarly Poor Tom with a rabid curiosity eagerly inquiring “What hast thou been?” yet, imagining Goneril on trial, he spits at her shadow with undisguised hatred. And, even in the shattering encounter with the blinded Gloucester on Dover heath, Jacobi first tempts a fantasy mouse with toasted cheese before delightedly stamping on it.

What also marks out Jacobi’s performance is a sense of life’s circularity. His features, through the alchemy of acting, seem to acquire in the final scenes an infant-like luminosity. And Jacobi pierces all one’s emotional defences as he inquires, with a bewildered innocence, “Am I in France” or binds Cordelia to his breast with the rope that imprisons them both. But, even in death, there is contradiction as Jacobi emits blood-chilling cries on “Howl, howl, howl” before we see his flawed heart, not unlike that of the off-stage Gloucester, “burst smilingly”.

It is a tremendous Lear….

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