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Theatre review: King Lear (Donmar Warehouse) 
20th-Dec-2010 11:47 pm
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One of two Lears in London at the moment, Sir Derek Jacobi's portrayal is one of the most hotly-anticipated of recent years. Michael Grandage gives him a pared-down production at the Donmar Warehouse, which Christopher Oram's design has managed to make seem even more intimate than usual. It's an almost monochrome world with whitewashed wooden panels on the floor, walls and ceiling and mostly-black costumes belonging to no particular time period. Grandage is focusing on the play as a psychological drama rather than an epic, never more so than in Jacobi's delivery of the play's most famous speech, which for me was the standout moment of this production: The storm scene (cleverly conveyed through lighting and sound alone, none of the usual tankfuls of water; admittedly that's a bit of a swizz, one of the joys of King Lear is watching a frail old man being given pneumonia) sees the "Blow winds and crack your cheeks" lines, usually howled at the elements themselves, whispered in a haunting, expressionistic aside, an inner monologue that Ron Cook's Fool is not privy to.

Jacobi's Lear is impressive but he's also one of the more straightforwardly sympathetic Lears I've seen, his downfall caused entirely by an old man's folly rather than the comeuppance of a former tyrant. One notable thing about the production is its speed: While most Lears come in at three-and-a-half to nearly four hours, Grandage's runs at well under three (presumably with some minor cuts but nothing obvious.) This speed is obvious in the verse-speaking though for the most part it doesn't blur the storytelling. I went with Andy who'd never seen the play before and whose only knowledge of the story was the quick summary he'd asked me to give him beforehand. He was generally satisfied with the way the action unfolded although he did say the second half's battles weren't always easy to follow and that he sometimes wished the actors would pause to catch their breath and give the lines their due. For my part, I found that the speed of the production made it hard for the actors to make their characters stand out. With the exception of Jacobi himself and Paul Jesson (one of the best Gloucesters I've seen) I can't see myself remembering any of the performances for years to come. And while this play is so often mentioned in the same breath as Hamlet it's not as much of a one-man show as that can be - in previous productions there's been Edgars, Edmunds, Gonerils, Regans and Fools who've stayed with me but the actors here aren't really given the opportunity to bring their characters to life and there's few directorial flourishes given to them. While Jacobi himself is as good as you might have hoped for (his "Howl, howl" speech at the death of Cordelia moved me more than any since Sir Robert Stephens', the first Lear I saw) the production itself is a good Lear, not a great one.

King Lear by William Shakespeare is booking until the 5th of February at the Donmar Warehouse (followed by a UK tour and with a live cinema screening on the 3rd of February.)
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