at the Donmar Warehouse, Thursday 30 December 2010
Some plays are cemented in our minds as being epic, sprawling stories which could not be done justice on small stages. We may imagine them in huge spaces with dozens of extras and fancy scenery. King Lear may be one such play. It’s many characters, big themes and brutal wars suggest a play suited to big stages. And it is. But, as Michael Grandage has proved, it’s just as sensible to put it in a small area with a small cast, thus teasing out the humanity, forcing us to look at the micro rather than the macro.
While many productions look at the political elements of the play, or consider violence and all manner of other themes, Grandage takes it back to basics. Simple costumes, simple set and unpretentious performances come together to highlight the emotions in the play. The actors are put centre stage, rather than showy visuals or an overly-ambitious ‘concept’.
Christopher’s Oram’s whitewashed wooden set creates a space which can be both claustrophobic and open, without the use of unnecessary props. The most brilliant aspect of this set is that whenever it is splashed with colour – Gloucester’s blood, for example – it stays there for the duration, serving as a reminder of what has gone before. Neil Austin’s lighting design and Adam Cork’s sound are again straightforward, epitomised in the beautifully sedate storm scene, in which white light blazes through the cracks in the roof and a gentle wind swirls throughout.
All this would be useless, however, if it wasn’t for the exquisite acting on display. Especially engaging are Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell as Goneril and Regan who together portray headstrong women and at times demand empathy; they are just as misguided as their father. Gwilym Lee as Edgar is also impressive, slipping from princely nobility to feigned madness with ease, and Alec Newman’s Edmund packs a worthy punch.
Nevertheless, for all the superb decisions made by the cast and crew, it is Derek Jacobi in the title role who holds the show, and, for the most part, the audience’s attention. Entering quietly in Act One, there is already a feeling of sobriety about his posture, and vocal irregularities suggests his world is already crumbling. In the second half, Jacobi comes into his own, and his portrayal of Lear’s madness is simply heartbreaking. He has reverted to childhood, oblivious to his family and friends until the last. There have been few moments as touching on stage in the last year.
This is a Lear for all time, refusing to be boxed into a certain period and retaining within a humanity relevent to all. Grandage’s skillful direction is beautifully understated, and it is only at the end we realise the “weight of this sad time”. Jacobi’s performance is the one that will be remembered, however, and rightly so. You’ll be lucky to find a better Lear in the next decade.