A True King Among Lears

Derek Jacobi gives a masterful performance as the tormented monarch

Theatre
Astonishing range: Derek Jacobi has complete authority over his audience 

For someone whose day job, like mine, is to comment on the cynicism and incompetence of current affairs, it is hard to express enthusiasm without embarrassment. It feels awkward to keep repeating how fortunate we are in this country to have a truly dazzling theatre culture. Yes, there are lots of third-rate productions here, and dismal experimental theatres and depressing thespian luvvies of all kinds. But at the same time, we have directors and designers and actors whose achievements defy cynicism.

Michael Grandage’s King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse is one such inspiration. Grandage has been artistic director at the Donmar since 2002 and is responsible for the consistent creativity of this little theatre. His direction of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne last summer made it perhaps the most moving experience I have ever had in opera by bringing exceptional theatrical understanding to the music. His current Lear is of this same overwhelming, slightly claustrophobic quality. With Derek Jacobi as the King, this is among the best Lears I have seen, though the general standard is extremely high: it would be hard to better Michael Gambon as Lear, with Antony Sher as the Fool, at the RSC Barbican in 1983.

Jacobi has been a virtuoso for years and, at 72, still is. His mood and tone range is astonishing. Like all the best Lears, he moves almost imperceptibly and sometimes instantly from one emotion to another, across a huge range from whimpering to raging, speaking the Shakespearean verse as if he himself had just thought of it. He has that essential quality of a great actor — complete authority over the audience. So too do Kent (Michael Hadley) and the Fool (Ron Cook), and Gwilym Lee as Poor Tom is well on the way to achieving it. All three of them, in this desolate play, manage to bring emotional power to goodness, even in meaningless defeat. I’ve always thought that Lear is the best statement of the best of existentialism.

Grandage’s production opens on Christopher Oram’s entirely bare set, with walls heavily smeared with chalky-white clay and earth, expressing like an abstract painting the extreme bleakness of Shakespeare’s vision. It is the same earth with which the naked Tom will smear himself on the blasted heath, and the same earth to which the play keeps reminding us we will all come. The timeless costumes and the almost complete absence of props contribute to the sense of stripped-down, abstract humanity — a central preoccupation of the play.

Yet at the same time, Grandage has partly domesticated some of the central characters. In this interpretation, Jacobi’s red-faced, vainglorious and febrile irascibility, his campy vanity and his lack of self-awareness combined with moments of self-doubt, present Lear as everyone’s idea of the nightmare rich old father — capricious, unreasonable, unpleasant and clearly likely to get much worse. For once, it is possible to feel some sympathy, at first, with his daughters Regan and Goneril when he puts himself in their power. Such tragedies are enacted across suburbia, too. Having a thankless child may be sharper than a serpent’s tooth, but so too is having a monstrous parent who sets his children against each other.

In Shakespeare’s writing, and in this production, the complete desolation of the play is transfigured by beauty. The language is beautiful — it’s easy to forget that Lear has some of Shakespeare’s best poetry — and the direction creates many lovely moments, almost like old-fashioned tableaux. On the blasted heath, when Lear begins to sympathise with cold, mad, Poor Tom, and crouches close to him near the ground, Jacobi slowly puts out his hand towards him, in a long, hesitant, tender gesture, somehow expressing all the ambiguities in the maddened king’s mind in a way that transcends the pity of it. It is exquisite to look at. On several occasions, characters hold each other in briefly sustained positions as if in a sort of dance. They embrace and stroke each other’s hair at moments of fellow-feeling which have the same visual power.

And there was something inspired about the final scene in which Kent and Edgar cradle the dead Lear, above Cordelia’s body. Lear is in shroud-like white, the others in black, and the geometry of their positions, with the hopeless anguish of the moment, suggest — in this most un-Christian of plays — a very beautiful Pietà. If there is any redemption in Lear, it is through truth — including self-knowledge — and beauty.

Desolation lies at the heart of Alan Ayckbourn’s suburban dramas too, though perhaps with even less hope of redemption than in Lear. All the same, they are often hog-whimperingly funny. At Season’s Greetings, superbly directed by Marianne Elliott at the Lyttelton, the audience, including me, roared helplessly with laughter. Ayckbourn loves writing plays set at Christmas. It offers the perfect excuse for forcing together for three days a group of people who cannot stand each other or the misery of their relationships — a suburban version of the tempest on the blasted heath, perhaps.

In Season’s Greetings, various unhappy couples and lonely people come together out of a sense of duty to make each other wretched, as they know they will. They struggle in their well-meaning festive imprisonment, with painfully suppressed rage. L’enfer, c’est les autres à Noël: this is an existentialist play too, with the host and hostess bleakly facing their empty life at the end. 

However the witty home truths and hilarious slapstick and pratfalls along the way are very uplifting: you’ve got to laugh.

There are several physical tours de force, which had me almost crying with laughter: a heavily pregnant woman manoeuvres her drunken husband to bed, via a dangerous dance of death round the Christmas tree; the guest’s seduction of the hostess under the same tree suddenly sets off a monstrous Babel of noisy children’s toys, flashing Christmas lights and blaring Santa music, waking up everyone to general outrage. This is a triumph of comic timing and comic physical skills, and very cheering at this testing time of year.