Christmas shows traditionally involve a beanstalk or glass slipper, not terror, madness and destruction. When the yuletide performance is Derek Jacobi’s monumental and soul-stirring “King Lear” in London, the baubles aren’t missed.
In a bare-box set made of slatted gray planks daubed with whitewash, Jacobi (known for “I, Claudius” and “Gosford Park”) begins by showing Lear as a pompous and exuberant soul as he divides his kingdom between his daughters.
Authority and power crackle from his very fingertips. The certainty of his place in the world is so strong that he’s even capable of petulance. “I loved her most,” he says of the disgraced Cordelia, emphasizing “her” with a childish whine.
He’s equally seigniorial with the Fool. “Ha, ha, ha,” he replies to one of the Fool’s jokes, as he swishes his riding crop. His sarcastic tone sounds like “har, hardy, har”.
Director Michael Grandage offers the chance for some startling experiments too. Over a quiet rumbling white noise, Jacobi, 72, delivers the famous storm speech “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” in a whisper, as if he’s the calm eye of a destructive hurricane. It’s febrile, disturbing stuff.
The more pompous he is at first, the greater the effect of his humility and need for forgiveness after the madness of the storm. Where other great theatrical knights like Michael Gambon and Ian McKellen have given us complex and tortured Lears, Jacobi’s is most moving for its unforced compassionate dignity in the later scenes.
He’s helped by a superb cast. Gina McKee (Goneril) and Justine Mitchell (Regan) watch Lear’s every move like hawks. They’ve learned to survive his sudden rages, just as the children of alcoholics do: by treading on eggshells. Their path from sympathetic underdogs to power-crazed murderers is presented step by terrifyingly reasonable step.
Pippa Bennet-Warner makes a wonderful Cordelia too. There’s nothing arch in her innocence, nothing forced in her love for Lear. Her tenderness lends a cathartic sorrow to the final scenes.
The subplot is handled beautifully. Alec Newman is a virile and powerful Edgar, and Paul Jesson a sympathetic Gloucester. His reconciliation to his blinded state, “Henceforth I’ll bear/ Affliction” touches greatness.
Grandage’s production keeps everything simple and, bar the occasional sword or letter, there are almost no props. The pacing is excellent, from the energy and urgency of the opening expositional scenes, to the calm and quiet of the father-daughter reconciliation. The elegant costumes mix medieval-style black robes with heavy Victorian overcoats.
“We’ll take upon’s the mystery of things/ As if we were God’s spies” says Lear to comfort Cordelia. If the gods happen to turn their spyglasses on all this greatness, they won’t be disappointed.
“King Lear” is at the Donmar Warehouse until Feb. 5. It will be broadcast worldwide to 22 countries on Feb. 3 as part of National Theatre Live. There is also an 8 week national tour Feb.22 thru April 16. http://www.donmarwarehouse.com or +44-844-871-7624
The production is sponsored by Liz & Simon Dingemans and Anda Winters, and the Donmar Warehouse receives support from principal sponsor Barclays Capital.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)