When one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of our time meets one of Shakespeare’s most profound works, the result is life-giving. At age seventy-two, Derek Jacobi (2009 winner of the Falstaff Award for Best Supporting Actor) is at his prime for playing King Lear. The expectations surrounding this production are enormous—the run is sold out, and on February 3, 2011, the performance will be broadcast live to over 300 theatres throughout the globe, followed by an eight-week UK tour. Lear is not a play for the faint of heart, and Jacobi more than rises to the occasion—he gives a breathtaking performance. When language and actor reveal themselves so openly, we are enabled to both see and sense the play (“Lear: yet you see / How this world goes. Gloucester: I see it feelingly”), and our own existence, in ways previously not apparent. In Michael Grandage’s production of King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse, Jacobi reaches an apogee of Shakespearean actor-language presentation.
Jacobi’s is not a Lear in physical decline; he is surprisingly aggressive, attacking Kent at the outset and later brandishing a horsewhip. He summons up “high rage” with ferocity, and his long curse on Goneril (“Into her womb convey sterility, / Dry up in her the organs of increase...”) is terrifying. Yet in the span of a single line, he can shift the mood of the entire theatre. The quietness of his first recognition of madness (“O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!”) suddenly humanizes Lear, now faced with a descent into the unknown. The storm on the heath is presaged by a wall of sound—painfully loud in the Donmar’s tight space—but it suddenly cuts out, and Jacobi delivers “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” at barely a whisper, the invocation reflecting his disintegrating mind. The moment is brilliant. He makes use of simple but effective hand gestures; he opens and closes “curtains” before falling asleep in the hovel, and later, in his conversation with Gloucester, uses a similar motion to imply peering into female genitalia (“There's hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit”). As an actor, Jacobi radiates truth and honesty, and his ability to discover word valences marks him as phenomenally accomplished: watching him is watching a master at work.
While there is nothing safe about Jacobi’s performance, the rest of the production leans toward the sparse. Designer Christopher Oram creates a stage of wooden planks, painted in splotches of white and gray for a chilled, bare effect. Props are kept to a minimum, leaving the playing space uncluttered. Stephanie Arditti’s costumes are serviceable, with a vaguely medieval theme, and keeping to a dark palette of blacks, blues, and deep reds. The best piece is Cordelia’s elegant curved-backed black gown. The physical setting leaves room for the actors (namely, Jacobi) to fill the space, which is fine when Jacobi is on stage, but attention tends to drift when he is not.
That being said, the supporting cast give solid performances, with moving work from the Ron Cook as the Fool, Paul Jesson as Gloucester, and Michael Hadley as Kent. Pippa Bennett-Warner makes an entirely convincing Cordelia, and her reunion with her father-king proves one of the strongest scenes. But while at first their portrayal elicits sympathy as the put-upon daughters of a rash and cruel father, the characterizations of Goneril (Gina McKee) and Regan (Justine Mitchell) begin as too languid to make a convincing transition to eye plucking, poisoning, and adultery. But once they tap into their darker selves, Grandage sets up visceral scenarios. In an inventive and repulsive bit of staging, the Duke of Cornwall (Gideon Turner) plucks out Gloucester’s eyes, one at a time, squishing the left eye with his foot and throwing the right eye at the wall. The eye bursts, and the crimson splatter remains on the stage, uncomfortable and stark against the white background.
While the production does not upset convention, it finds, especially in Jacobi’s performance, a marriage of clarity of speech and openness of action that allows for reflection on Lear-ian themes of being (and unbeing), existence, and age. This is Shakespearean performance at some of its most profound—when performance is neither subservient to nor trying to out do the text, but rather finds in and with it a harmonious partnership.