King Lear is giving Hamlet a run for its money as play of the moment right now. We’ve have a rush of Danish princes and now it’s the turn of mad Monarchs as a raft of Lears take to the stage. Much like the Hamlet productions it is unfair to compare wildly different interpretations, how ever strong that temptation proves to be.
In Michael Grandage’s Donmar Warehouse, King Lear, this heaviest of Shakesperian tragedies, seems to virtually fly by. Only a few minor nips and tucks have been made to the script but the show is played with such pace that is seems like much more radical surgery has taken place. This fast pace, however, works well, allowing the audience to be swept along on a tide of emotion. Played against a simple wooden plank set, this is a timeless production, evoking period while never defining it. It does allow, much like Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night at the National, a closer focus on text, turning this epic tragedy into a devastating chamber pieces.
At the heart of any production of this play is of course the performance of Lear himself and Derek Jacobi joins the list of great Lears. This is a performance that reaches deep into the troubled King’s emotions and lays them bare for all to see; from the beginnings of insanity to the blood chilling howl at the death of Cordelia, Jacobi’s performance is utterly mesmerising. In the midst of the storm his voice drops to a whisper as he shares his darkest thoughts with an engrossed audience hanging on every word. Rarely has the complexity of this usurped King been so vividly portrayed.
Of course King Lear is more than a solo show and this is a fine ensemble production. Justine Mitchell’s initially restrained Regan shows her true colours as she revels in the blinding of Gloucester, while Gina McKee’s Goneril balances sensuality with a rod of steel as she manipulates both her husband and Edmund. Pippa Bennett-Warner’s Cordelia balances the manipulation of her plotting sisters, playing her with a direct honesty.
While for young actors Hamlet may be the challenge to face, for our more senior actors it’s Lear that provides that emotional and mental challenge. King Lear isn’t, nor should it ever be, easy viewing but in this production Jacobi and company manage to make it fresh, gripping and relevant.
You may leave emotionally shaken but this is a Lear that will stick in your memory for many a year.