Review: King Lear, Donmar Warehouse

“The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”

So what ought I say? Well, this is actually my first time seeing King Lear, it was never a play I studied at school, college or university and it was never been one that I’ve ever really wanted to see. Consequently, I’ve managed to avoid it and its story but when Sir Derek Jacobi was announced in the role in a Donmar Warehouse production directed once again by Michael Grandage, the lure of seeing this play, oft regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, finally proved too great and so I booked for the first of three previews and it was well I decided when I did as this has become one of the hot tickets of the winter. 

It was actually a genuine pleasure seeing such a play without knowing the plot, I was gripped in a way I’ve rarely been whilst watching Shakespeare as an adult and this tale of murder, malice, love, families, avarice, maiming, madness, deceit, remorse and so much death surprised me time and time again with its examination of human frailties. For those of you (and I don’t imagine there are many) who don’t know the plot, Lear is the aged King of Britain who chooses to abdicate and divide his kingdom into three to share amongst his daughters. But when the youngest refuses to make a public declaration of love and the Earl of Kent defends her, both are banished from the kingdom, leaving the older two daughters to inherit with their husbands and thus the seeds of treachery and revenge are planted as their ambition grows, throwing Lear’s world into chaos and threatening his very sanity. 

Compared to say, Hamlet, I was surprised at how action-filled the play is and the subsequent less reliance on soliloquy but there is no doubt that this is Lear’s story and as this troubled man, Derek Jacobi is just outstanding, gripping from the start as a cantankerous but authoritative leader to the intense vulnerability of his madness as a pastoral simpleton through to the painful recognition of his own fallibility at the finish as his faculties begin to return. The wails that accompany the realisation of the betrayals against him and his keening over the final death that precipitates the breaking of his own heart is just devastating and to see him as a broken old man is most affecting. But though it is a massively central role, Jacobi is served well by a superb ensemble, dressed in a modern-classical style, all variations on flowing black robes and gowns.

Gina McKee’s ball-busting Goneril and Justine Mitchell’s vicious Regan were both excellent in their cold manipulations and machinations, Tom Beard and Gideon Turner well matched as their husbands and I was also impressed by Alec Newman’s compellingly Machiavellian bastard son Edmund, working his way into the desires of both sisters. Gwilym Lee’s Edgar as his usurped rightful heir has a great vitality especially when playing the madman, Amit Shah is particularly noteworthy in the small role of Oswald and Michael Hadley as Kent and Ron Cook’s Fool provide supremely sterling support around their fading leader. The only minor thing I could point out would be Pippa Bennett-Warner’s quietly devout Cordelia, despite being well-played, really needs to work on her projection before opening night, she was far too quiet in the second act. 

Christopher Oram’s sparse design has a genuinely transformative effect on the Donmar which is highly arresting and one which I hope can be transferred to all of the venues to which it is touring. Taking a bit of a similar cue from the Tricycle’s recent Broken Glass with a non-representational playing space suggesting (to me at least) a focus more on the internal drama and torment within Lear; the floor, walls, ceiling are all covered in a kind-of whitewashed wood panelling and left bare, creating a large amount of stage space within a cube. Props are at a bare minimum, a stool, a chair, a map of the kingdom is about the sum of it aside from the weapons, this is as intimate as epic theatre can get.

Grandage’s direction keeps the action moving incredibly well: there’s a kinetic energy that runs throughout, scene changes executed smoothly and swiftly with not a moment wasted, an incredible feat for a first preview really, but a canny choice to keep an urgency about the play which drives it forward. And as for the way in which the storm is portrayed, it almost defies description and the way in which Jacobi delivers in lines during this scene has to rank as one of the greatest things you will have seen all year.

Other reviews by more seasoned theatregoers will be able to tell you how this ranks in the pantheon of Lears, it is a role after all that is considered to be one of the great tests of our best actors (for better or for worse) but all I can offer is my take on what was to me a new play. I’m not sure yet if it is indeed one of the greatest dramas ever, but this production is stunningly good, more of a psychodrama than I was expecting and supported by an excellent ensemble, Jacobi really does confirm his place as one of our finest classical actors. 

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 5th February, then touring to Llandudno, Belfast, Glasgow, Milton Keynes, Salford, Richmond, Bath and Truro, it will also be broadcast as part of NT Live on February 3rd
Note: loud noises, some strobe lighting and smoke effects used

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