We’ve seen at least three Lears over the past few years. We were very lucky to get good seats for Ian McKellen’s Lear in London a few years ago, and more recently we were slightly less lucky to see the late Pete Postlethwaite’s Lear at the Young Vic. Postlethwaite was excellent but I had lots of problems with the production itself. On the other hand McKellen’s Lear was as majestic as you could imagine.
So it was with great expectations that we witnessed Derek Jacobi’s interpretation of Lear. And I must say it’s a very different, but completely valid and credible portrayal of the misguided king. Whereas Lear is often a towering, bullying, bossy kind of guy, Jacobi’s pre-heath Lear is spoilt, petulant and wheedling, insisting on a peck on the cheek from Goneril before she starts buttering him up, his voice going very high tenor when he wants to get his way – you can imagine his bedroom having a royal cot with lots of toys on the floor. His descent into madness isn’t as gradual as some Lears – to me he seemed pretty on top of his wits until his encounter with Poor Tom, which seemed to flip him over the edge. When he referred to Tom as a philosopher I felt the madness kick in. Technically, as you would expect from an actor of his stature, it’s a beautiful performance. Every word is clear; no line is wasted; his eyes and his manner convey precise meaning when the Shakespearian language gets a little dense.
There are lots of other jewels in this crown of a production. If self-deluded Lear is every inch a king then Gina McKee’s Goneril is every inch a bitch. When she tells Lear how much she loves him in the opening scene her words are not directed at her father but at Cordelia, her eyes challenging her to “beat that” when it comes to her turn. It’s a very mature and physical performance – when she comes on strong to Edmund she really turns on the sex-factor, frankly masturbating in front of him. You wouldn’t want to upset her; I’ve never seen Albany being grabbed by the testicles to mock his weakness before. “Goneril and the Gonads” makes a very sharp impression, and the audience cringes with discomfort.
She is well matched in villainy by Justine Mitchell’s Regan. Looking all butter-wouldn’t-melt she beautifully underplays the scorn with which she suggests Lear’s retinue is diminished from a hundred to barely one. Her squeal of childish glee when Gloucester’s eyes are removed was stunningly horrific. It had all the excitement of a little girl unable to contain herself at a birthday party.
As the other bastard in this play, although this time a real Bastard too, Alec Newman is a very dashing Edmund, and totally believable; you’d swear he was telling the truth about Edgar’s plot to kill his father. Some Edmunds are rather cold and collected in their approach to their plot, but this is a very excitable one, glorying in his wicked plans, impatient to get on in life. When he’s playing Goneril and Regan off against each other you can see his genuine delight at the sport, it’s a really sexy game for him.
The rest of the cast all play their parts very well, Gideon Turner’s Cornwall was very convincing as the unapologetically malevolent putter-outer of Gloucester’s eyes (I particularly liked –if that is the word – the way he threw the second eye on to the floor and you heard it bounce) and Gwilym Lee as Edgar’s Poor Tom character did actually bring a tear to my eye with his sorrow at seeing his blind father. As is often the case, Lear’s entry with the dead Cordelia in his arms brought a lump to the throat. It was Jacobi’s “Howl! Howl! Howl!” (Act V Scene III, line 256) that did it.
One thing I really admired about this production is how there was barely any staging or furniture. The unchanging set is just three walls and a ceiling made of planks with various shades of white and grey daubed on them (with additional splashes of red after Gloucester’s blinding). Lights behind slim gaps between the planks create the lightning effect for the heath. For props and furniture, there was a chair, a joint-stool, a map, a few letters, some jewellery and swords and a bit of earth for Edgar’s Tom make-up. This really means that all your attention is on the words, the characters, the acting. Having seen a number of over-staged productions recently it’s thrilling to see the drama evolve unadulterated by minutiae.
Additionally I should mention that Adam Cork won the Olivier Award for best Sound Design for this production, which is a fitting reward for the moody, scary, disquieting atmospheres that he has created. Lear on the heath is a very different interpretation from the traditional – the words are delivered much more calmly and quietly than usual – but the sound design helps create a very spooky experience.
It’s excellent that the Donmar is making this production available to a much larger audience. The Milton Keynes Theatre was sold out for a Wednesday evening, which is good news for business. It’s a great, stark production that lets the text do the talking and with some fine characterisations of its villains and victims to inhabit it.