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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar Warehouse


  Derek Jacobi/ Ph: Johan Persson

Sir Derek Jacobi and Michael Grandage have become something of a double act. Having already collaborated on The Tempest (2002), Schiller’s Don Carlos (2004) and Twelfth Night (2008) they have now produced a King Lear that is crammed with moments of magnificence. There is clearly an exceptional simpatico at work between actor and director.  
Lear is a role poised on the cusp. He needs to be old enough to evince gravitas yet strong enough to sustain a marathon evening of high-intensity theatrics. A robust 72, Jacobi has no problems with the physicality, sings through the poetry and finds an ultimate truth that lacerates to the core – his final redemptive scenes are heartbreakingly acute.
The central conceit of the production turns this sprawling epic into a chamber piece. There are no extra actors, the single set is devoid of props, and the tempo hurtles along at breakneck speed. A daringly exposed approach that pays off at almost every turn, this is Shakespeare under a microscope.
Once again the Donmar’s chief design team of Christopher Oram and Neil Austin contributes immeasurably to the atmosphere. Austin’s stark white lighting and the bare bleached planks of Oram’s setting are in stunning contrast to the midnight hues of his costumes.
From his very first line Jacobi’s Lear is a tetchy autocrat, a swaggering diva who refuses to countenance the possibility of any alternatives to his own view of the world. We watch aghast as he struts, rants and raves himself into a straightjacket of his own devising.
Here, his two eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, are not just vipers at his breast. Grandage lets us see their pain. They know their father ranks them as second best and that their younger sister Cordelia garners the lion’s share of his love.
There is a telling exchange of accusations when his daughters connive to deprive the astonished and frustrated Lear of his retinue. He moans, “I gave you all. …” Regan’s reply, “And in good time you gave it,” is more the sorrowful lament of an unloved child than the venom of a harpy. Justine Mitchell brings an unexpected softness to Regan that almost makes us feel sorry for her. In contrast, Gina McKee plays Goneril with a haughty conniving glamour that is as selfishly imperious as her father’s skewered vision of the world.
(It always comes as a shock how small Cordelia’s role actually is – virtually nothing more than a symbol on which the plot turns. Pippa Bennett-Warner does her best, but cannot begin to match the same impression as her sisters.)
My major quibble about this staging is with the storm scene. After searing flashes of lightning and horrific crashes of thunder, Lear and his Fool stagger onto the stage. Then – total surprise – the storm cuts out completely and Lear, immobile in the center of the stage, all but whispers, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” This interior monologue approach is too clever by half and draws undue attention to a theatrical concept rather than an emotional imperative.
Lear, of course, is not the only focus. There is a parallel plot of Gloucester and his two sons – one a bastard (in all senses of the word) and one naive. The spine of this plot is a grand guignol of bloodthirsty Jacobean havoc. Grandage mixes black comedy and horror when it comes to the sadistic blinding of Gloucester. Regan, now a gleefully transgressive child, bounces up and down as her husband stamps on Gloucester’s ripped-out eyes as if they were vermin underfoot.

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