King Lear, Donmar Warehouse, London
Thursday 09 December 2010
He is the most exacting and pernickety of actors, Derek Jacobi, which means that his long-awaited Lear will never open the floodgates. But it is most beautifully spoken and detailed. It's also terribly polite.
Cradling the dead Cordelia, he comments on her voice being ever soft and low, then skips the phrase about "an excellent thing in a woman", so as not to frighten the horses. There's a lot of editing, some of it effectively structural in the second half. But you start to yearn for the world to break apart as hearts crack.
The set is a boarded stockade with painted blobs and scars; you think it might tear apart at the storm, but it doesn't. Instead, the light comes sneaking through and Jacobi delivers "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks" rivetingly, his eyes closed in concentration and premonition of the play's blindness theme.
This is his greatest moment, one of fear and trepidation, for this Lear is a coward and a poet, not a bad combination: he's a stickler for ritual and proper manners. Which is why it's so successful in throwing back in our faces our own relationships with sons and fathers. It's a lesson in parenting. Lear is trapped into a position of anger having embarked on a game of vanity with his daughters: who loves me most?
But the Albion speech is cut, too and I do think this speech is the key to the play. The political hugger-mugger becomes trite, despite superb contrasting performances by Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell as Goneril and Regan.
The first half is superb: Jacobi's prayer for naked wretches "who bide the pelting of this pitiless storm" is very moving. Unfortunately, do-gooding intentions are not enough when it comes to elemental tragic performances. You want to see the human animal laid bare.
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