Review: King Lear – Donmar Warehouse ****

As the Hamlet conveyor belt shows no sign of easing up, it is worth considering the epic role at the other end of the career – Lear.  Greg Hicks will be offering his, via the RSC, in 2011, but now, Derek Jacobi offers his, courtesy of the Donmar.

Designer Christopher Oram presents us a monochrome, timeless Lear, the scrubbed, bleached boards compliment the exquisite costumes and is enlivened by Neil Austin’s atmospheric lighting design.

The set and costumes suggest a game of chess, and director Michael Grandage places his pieces decoratively around the playing area; there is a specificity to the staging and use of space that perfectly emphasizes Grandage’s understanding of the theatre.  It is serene and elegant and controlled.

Control is a key theme of this Lear, this most poetic piece is at all times precise and restrained.  That is not to say it is without passion, it is haunting and emotional and genuinely moving, but there is a reverence here which contains the text rather than liberates it.

This is one of the strongest ensembles in London at the moment, each actor delivering a detailed performance and demonstrating wide-ranging versatility.  Their collective mastery of the text is breathtaking, albeit lissom rather than robust, but their individual characterisations are no less accomplished. Particularly outstanding are Ron Cook as a Pagliaccio-esque Fool, Pippa Bennett-Warner as Cordelia and Gwilym Lee who elevates Edgar into an heroic lead, while Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell are both uniformly excellent as the sisters.

But Lear is Lear, and without a towering, compelling figure at the heart, then no matter how accomplished the company, the performance cannot take flight.

quiet, controlled and precise. This Lear is a poet King, not a warrior King

Fortunately Jacobi is the perfect Lear, or, rather more accurately, Jacobi is Grandage’s perfect Lear.  In a reverent, elegant production, Jacobi turns in a superlatively graceful performance.  For his first entrance, encased in a vast winter coat, Jacobi’s sheer size impresses.  He is mercurial, quick to anger, capricious in mood and movement, but always in control.  Divested of his clothes and his mind, his Lear shrinks in stature but never in poise; he remains, at all times, refined.  His delivery of the famous Blow winds and crack your cheeks speech which pitches him as the eye of the storm, is quiet, controlled and precise. This Lear is a poet King, not a warrior King.

Curiously, it is precision which makes this production particularly affecting, the hyperbole is never overplayed, the emotion never overwrought.  Instead, as the chess pieces fall away one by one, Jacobi’s Lear is revealed as a man, not a King, nor a God.

This is not quite a triumph of style over substance, there is a surfeit of detail and emotion here which precludes that.  If anything it is a triumph of substantial style.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 5th February 2011
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