'King Lear'

Derek Jacobi's Lear is upsetting not because he scales epic heights but because he so startlingly plumbs depths of terror.

Michael Grandage’s spellbinding production of “King Lear” shatters two abiding misconceptions.” First, that the play’s huge themes need a grand-scale production in order to resonate. Second, that it stands and falls by its central performance. In this daringly stripped-down production, Derek Jacobi’s Lear is deeply upsetting not because he scales epic heights but because he so startlingly plumbs depths of terror. And with Lear kept in thrilling balance with every other character, the play’s elemental power is truly unleashed.

In a play beset by madness, balance turns out to be this production’s hallmark. That’s particularly impressive considering that the multiplicity of plot strands — Lear’s loss of control, his daughters’ trajectories, Edmund’s power game, Gloucester and Edgar’s parallel father/son scenario, and more — tends to lead directors to focus on one or some at the expense of others.

Production takes its lead from Christopher Oram’s design. Every surface of the Donmar has been covered in dirty white wooden planks. Creating so unspecific yet supremely suggestive a space is a massive risk, because in a white box it’s virtually impossible to focus actors or action with light. It also means there are no hiding places.

This seriously ups the ante in a play that so vividly unpacks the idea that everyone’s tiniest actions have consequences. Lear himself may initially have the majesty, but unless everyone else carries power and authority, the picture is diminished. It is actually a play for at least eight leads and that’s exactly what this supremely well-cast production delivers.

Nothing is taken for granted or overplayed for effect. The three sisters are far removed from stereotype. Gina McKee’s Goneril doesn’t go for classic bitch, but her frozen smile as Lear refers to Cordelia as “our joy” speaks volumes. And Pippa Bennett-Warner’s low-voiced Cordelia releases the character from the prison of fey saintliness by making her goodness unusually active. It’s painfully apparent not just how much her “ingratitude” hurts Lear but how much it costs her.

That active quality is so present throughout that instead of characters being presented in isolation, their relationships become excitingly legible. Even Albany, a usually undercast role, is given authority thanks to Tom Beard’s permanently clear intent.

Edgar’s descent into the wretchedness of Mad Tom often merely seems like a complement to Lear’s madness. But instead of presenting Edgar as an individual in torment, Gwilym Lee abandons histrionics and instead plays the need to recover his severed relations with Gloucester (beautifully tender Paul Jesson), his father. That makes their scenes together as blinded Gloucester yearns for death intensely touching.

Even the Fool is given melancholic weight because Ron Cook focuses more on his relationship with Lear than just developing a supposedly funny turn.

The pivot for all of this is, naturally, Lear. There’s barely a prop in the show but Jacobi needs none to convey kingship. And he’s only ever bombastic when the character, as distinct from the actor, is under strain, most of which is generated by fear.

Jacobi’s Lear sharpens pitiably into a man appallingly terrified by the loss of his mind. Adam Cork’s music-less sound design builds from a threatening grumble to a thunderous roar for the storm and then dramatically cuts out as Jacobi whispers rather than roars his distress. Infinitely more powerful than generalized shouting, the effect is shocking.

Indeed, his performance, whether drawing pathetic imaginary curtains in the air around his bed or slipping regretfully from a chair to reunite with Cordelia, is grippingly internal. So much so, that his howling at her death pierces the heart.

London has not seen so moving and intelligent a production of “King Lear” in years. Happily, the production will tour the U.K. and play BAM. And, who knows, it may be still more extraordinary in cinematic close-up when screened worldwide as part of NTLive.

King Lear

Donmar Warehouse, London; 250 seats; £29 $46 top

Production

A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Grandage.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin; music and sound, Adam Cork; production stage manager, Greg Shimmin. Opened, reviewed Dec. 7, 2010. Running time 2 HOURS, 50 MIN. With Harry Attwell, Tom Beard, Stefano Braschi, Derek Hutchinson, Amit Shah, Gideon Turner, Ashley Zhangazha

Cast

King Lear - Derek Jacobi
Goneril - Gina McKee
Reagan - Justine Mitchell
Cordelia - Pippa Bennett-Warner
Gloucester - Paul Jesson
Kent - Michael Hadley
Edgar - Gwilym Lee
Edmund - Alec Newman
The Fool - Ron Cook

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