Sunday, 23 January 2011

King Lear at The Donmar Warehouse

Photograph www.telegraph.co.uk

I know King Lear has been the hottest ticket in London for some while, but when our excellent 'theatre agent' booked the seats for us in March 2010, I'm sure none of us knew what a treat we were in for. At the time we we chose it, I think, because it was Shakespeare, and because of Derek Jacobi. But I can see now why the play is getting such good reviews. I can hardly begin to explain how deeply this production affected me.

When I sat down in the intimate theatre, I was taken aback by the simple stage: shoddily painted blanks of wood made the space look like an old shed. But as the cruel plot advanced, the stage took on a sinister air; it became a blank canvas onto which base human emotions could easily be drawn. And later, blood shone brightly and horrifyingly clearly against the whitewashed walls.

Derek Jacobi was wholly absorbing in the title role; his foolish pride, which in the course of the play turned into old age madness (dementia?) was so convincing it was painful to watch. I'm sure many of us in the audience could relate to an elderly parent's misguided loyalty causing havoc in family politics, be that they wouldn't be as dramatic as those in a Shakespearian kingdom. All the same, the fact that I at least could compare the emotions portrayed by the cast of this ancient play to modern life surely reflects not only the masterly writing but also the superb acting.

Whenever I go to see a Shakespeare play, I'm always worried that I won't be able to follow the plot. The language is said to be so difficult, but I once the dialogue starts, I find it almost easier to follow than some modern accents that I'm not used to (I find Scottish really tricky). I studied Shakespeare only very little at school, but find the phrasing so beautiful, the English so correct, that I almost wish people spoke like this all the time.

There are also those moments when you recognise a title, or a synonym, or a proverb in the play which has been used in modern literature. This time my Eureka moment came when the fool, mocking the madness of King Lear, says under his breath, 'And I'll Go to Bed at Noon.' I hadn't realised that the title of one of my favourite novels, the Booker short-listed tale by Gerard Woodward, referred to the play. I can see the connection now; in the book the family struggles to hold onto each other in the face of alcoholism, the modern drug, comparable to the lure of power which destroys King Lear's family.

I musn't forget to mention the rest of the excellent cast. Ron Cook as the fool was witty and tragic at the same time. Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell both gave brilliant performances as the power hungry sisters, Goneril and Regan, as did Pippa Bennett-Warner as the vulnerable and trustworthy Cordelia.

The only weak performance I saw was that given by Alec Newman as Edmund. He seemed too obviously nasty from the very first scene. As I've said, I'm no Shakespeare expert, but I felt his role demanded some slow development. We are aware too soon that he is bitter about his birthright - or the lack of it - and bears a grudge towards his legitimate brother, and the whole world he and his Father inhabits. I would have wanted the actor to have grown more sinister as the play went on, not to be the villain from the very start. But this is but a small complaint in the face of what was a totally awesome performance.

Every time I see a Shakespeare play I promise myself to study him further. This time I must keep to this promise.

6 comments:

QEIII said...

I'm looking forward to this -- it's actually coming to Brooklyn in the Spring, but tickets will probably be impossible to get, so I'm opting for NT Live, in which it will show in movie theaters on February 3.

Derek Jacobi is one of my favorite actors (he's soo handsome, even now!), a great interpreter of Shakespeare. Our dear man Simon Russell Beale will be taking on Lear next year at the National Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes.

Christina @ Fashion's Most Wanted said...

Dear Helena, Jacobi is wonderful! What a great cast as well. I find that if it's well acted I can follow it perfectly. I love seeing minimal Shakespeare productions. Have a great week xx

Mwa said...

Sounds like a wonderful play. I do miss being human and going to the theatre. Must book a play for Spring...

Rose said...

I'm very jealous you got to see this! Derek Jacobi is of course a wonderful actor but he is an extremely wonderful Shakespearean actor- I can imagine his Lear is sublime.

Lear isn't on as much these days as it is sometimes- I wonder if this will start a little re trending for it.

I'm thrilled you like Mr S so much- I always have, although I'm far from an expert.

Alexander Barnett said...

Your comments about Edmund make no sense. The actor playing the role may or may not be good[I haven't seen the production] but Edmund is a rotten and cold blooded character right from the start. He plots to destroy his brothers life and once he becomes Glocester's heir he will no doubt destroy Gloucester. He does not become worse as the play progresses but rather takes advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. He is a coldblooded man who betrays his father to a horrible fate without a backward glance. Their are two key qualities that I've always found lacking in the portrayal of Edmund. One is his amazing talent[like Iago] to make his lies totally believable. Second, he takes nothing for granted but rather sweats to achieve his goals. Their are numerous other problems I've seen in past productions of Lear. I'm looking forward to seeing this one.

Alison Cross said...

I like to read King Lear because my imagination is the only place that I can experience the storm loud enough and still be able to hear the words.

The language is odd, but I find that it somehow it adds to the potency of the experience :-)

Ali x