Derek Jacobi as King Lear, Richmond Theatre, April 2011

From the first moments of irascible folly to the final moments of grief as he cradles the body of his dearest Cordelia, Derek Jacobi’s Lear came alive on stage in a way that made this relatively long play seem to race past in no time.

The production by Michael Grandage, touring from the Donmar, uses an almost bare stage to concentrate our minds on the characters and their interactions. Christopher Oram’s set of tall slats making an open box of the stage emphasised the immense proportion of the drama in which each character is in one way or another a victim. Wonderful lighting  design by Neil Austin — I loved the silhouettes as Lear is seated to await his meeting with Cordelia — and a terrific soundscape by Adam Cork helped bring atmosphere without ever overpowering the action. The heralding of the storm by lighting and sound created a sense of bleakness that moved the play forward to the next stage without losing any of the tension between Lear and his nasty elder daughters.

These ladies were coolly and cleverly played by Gina McKee as Goneril, and Justine Mitchell as Regan. When Regan puts Lear’s old servant in the stocks, and even more when her husband gouges out Gloucester’s eyes, Ms. Mitchell combined elegant beauty with cool sadism — superb acting. The third sister, Cordelia, was beautifully played by Pippa Bennett-Warner, and her dark skin colour compared to her two sisters suggested a Cinderella-like fiction that her sisters are step-sisters. In fact there is a Jewish story about a man who asked his three daughters to declare their love for him, and while the first two say they love him “as much as diamonds”, and “as much as gold and silver”, the third one declares she loves him “the way meat loves salt”. He throws her out, she becomes a servant and the Cinderella part of the story starts.

This more complicated story was beautifully acted by the whole cast. Tom Beard as Albany was calmly authoritative as he faced down Alec Newman’s Edmund at the end, and Newman himself showed nefarious intent throughout the play by his body language, making me wonder that the other characters did not see through it and look beyond his words. Paul Jesson was a wonderfully sympathetic Gloucester, but it was Jacobi’s Lear that overwhelmed my sympathies, and made this a truly great performance.

This Donmar production has already been to Glasgow, Milton Keynes and the Lowry, Salford. After Richmond its tour continues to the Theatre Royal at Bath, April 5–9; and Hall for Cornwall in Truro, April 12–16.

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