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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
KING LEAR
at the Donmar Warehouse

MORE SINNED AGAINST THAN SINNING
By CLAIRE ALLFREE

  Derek Jacobi/ Ph: Johan Persson

"I’m not sure about being this close to the stage," a friend whispered before the start of Michael Grandage’s production with Derek Jacobi of Shakespeare’s bleakest play at the small-seater Donmar. "I find Lear intense enough as it is."
 
Grandage undeniably leaves the audience nowhere to hide with this speedy, wintery, minimalist staging, the skeletal, paint splattered planks of Christopher Oram’s scorching white set extending into most of the auditorium and thus placing the audience inside the same physical, unconsoling hinterland as the play.
 
Grandage is a director who tends to suspend his productions in abstract spaces outside any social or historical specificityhis main prop here is the ominous growl of imminent thunder – and as ever, this is a staging driven by rigorous psychological investigation rather than by state-of-the-nation conceptualising.
 
It’s telling that during the play’s most spectacular moment – the storm on the heath – our attention is riveted not by the turbulent light and sound clash that fills the stage but by the solitary Jacobi, standing as though in prayer, eyes tight shut in eerie prefiguring of the blinding of Gloucester, whispering to the winds, cataracts and hurricanes as though communing with a personal god.
 
Jacobi might lack the more unhinged terrors of Lear, but what he misses in desperate, to-the-knuckle despair he more than compensates for in detail, lucidity and a refusal to reconcile the many paradoxical passions raging through this man more sinned against than sinning. There’s more than a hint of manipulating, Machiavellian politician in his early disputes with his daughters and a teasing, unplaceable sense that anything he says can’t be taken entirely at face value.
 
Always at home with Shakespeare. Jacobi comes more into his own the more naked Lear becomes, haunted by the prospect of his own insanity, drawn by a horribly moving, wretched compassion to Poor Tom, and in a subtle inversion of the many parent-children relationships running through the play, increasingly a child in the face of the paternalistic care administered by Michael Hadley’s passionately loyal Kent, and Ron Cook’s exquisitely sorrowful fool. In one of Grandage’s greatest strokes, Lear’s two monstrous daughters are also deliciously delineated – Gina McKee’s aloof, sensual, calmly lethal Goneril an ice cool contrast to Justine Mitchell’s rougher, maniacal Regan, and both utterly terrifying.
 
There are a couple of missed opportunities: The dreaded blinding of Gloucester is, despite the psychotic determination of Gideon Turner’s fine Duke of Cornwall and the mad giggling of Regan, nowhere near the jolt to the heart and stomach it should be, and Gloucester’s bungled suicide, as he falls flat onto the floor, somehow misses that scene’s defining pathos and absurdity.

And you never quite feel that eviscerating desolation as the play progresses, either in yourself or in the world Lear inhabits. Grandage’s production is just a little too elegant for that. Yet the production gains enormous strength from Grandage’s emphasis on language: The poetry glitters like diamonds; many lines sound brand new. A degree of proof will always lie in the reconciliation scene with Cordelia (a vibrant, steely Pippa Bennett-Warner); this one is unquestionably a tearjerker. And as the production ends in a stylised tableau of grief, the sound of birdsong suddenly in the air, this Lear acquires a newly transcendent dimension.
 


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