King Lear – Janaury 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 20th Janaury 2011

I wasn’t too hopeful that I’d enjoy this production, as the previous Shakespearean tragedies we’d seen directed by Michael Grandage had always seemed to lack depth, especially in the emotional department. Today was a revelation. A sparse set, rich but sombre costumes, and some tremendous acting from the whole cast made this the perfect Lear. I laughed, I cried – Steve overheard Ron Cook comment ‘terrific audience’ on his way out, so I suspect we weren’t the only ones having a great time.

I felt that Goneril’s voice was a little weak early on, but I reckon that was to make her seem like the good little daughter – she found her lungs and her power soon enough when the crown was on her head. Derek Jacobi went bright red with anger on a number of occasions, and I was quite worried for him, but he lasted the performance (thank goodness), and his acting was both very powerful and very detailed, bringing out subtle nuances and making all the lines clearly intelligible, both in terms of what he said (didn’t really need the hearing aids with him), and what it meant. The fool was trying to cheer him up after they’d met Poor Tom, but it was clear that Lear was too far gone to relate to him anymore. The fool was brushed aside as Lear was helped off the stage to Gloucester’s offered shelter, and at that point makes the difficult decision to leave the king. I was also aware during the Lear/Gloucester duet that Lear has taken on some of the attributes of the fool, pointing out many of the vanities and injustices of the world.

The text was very well edited; it told the story fully but without the extra flourishes, and the clarity of the dialogue wasn’t limited to the king. The pace was brisk, but not to the detriment of understanding, and also even, with every cast member following the same beat. Another nice touch was playing the storm scene in relative quiet. The gaps in the wooden planks allowed lights to shine through, just suggesting lightning. No actual water was used although there was a drain along the back wall, and the thunderstorm effects were kept to a minimum. Lear was therefore able to whisper his first lines of these speeches, and increase the volume gradually, which made it much more powerful in my view. The fool also looked as though he was moving in slow motion, suggesting that these thoughts were flashing through Lear’s brain faster than the lightning itself.

The cast was trimmed to the minimum, but no problems there. Some rhubarb from behind us gave the impression of a large crowd of hangers-on, and for the most part they relied on the text and their acting abilities, both of which were well up to the task. If only more productions would do the same. We were also spared the procession of bodies at the end, with Edmund dying offstage, along with both sisters. I noticed some pinker patches on the white floor planks, so perhaps they did make an appearance early on? The eye removal wasn’t the worst I’ve seen, but there was enough blood to leave me feeling suitably squeamish.

In the early scenes, Edgar came on stage before Regan and Goneril departed, and they were already noticing the handsome young man who’s new at court. Edgar’s reactions to his father’s introduction of him to Gloucester were spot on, including not being too happy to find out he’s being sent away, again.

The sisters were less wolfish than usual; in fact I found them quite reasonable to begin with. OK, Lear’s being incredibly foolish playing his little game with them all, but they both handled it smoothly, and even convincingly. The rot set in once they had the power and no longer had to pretend to love their father. That, coupled with lust for Edmund and jealousy of each other, seemed to be the main driving forces for those two. But then, this production wasn’t so much trying to do an in-depth psychological examination of dysfunctional family relationships, as tell a cracking good story which contained both humour and suffering.

The scene between Kent and the messenger chap seemed to have more lines than I remember – must check text.

I was very aware when Edgar was leading Gloucester up the pretend slope to the cliff top, that here was a young man helping his blinded father whom he loved (yes, the hanky was out good and early). I could relate to how difficult it must have been to be with his father and still pretend.

The fight scene was good. I was a little worried they might get too close to the audience, but all was well, in that only Edmund received a fatal wound. Goneril grabbed a dagger before running off.

Lear’s final scene and death were very touching. He carried Cordelia on, and she was soon lowered to the floor, very gently, by Kent and Albany, if memory serves. Lear eventually sank back into Kent’s arms, and with some racking breaths, let out a final, deep sigh to signify his passing. Kent stayed there, cradling his body. I wondered if he had been wounded in the fighting, by the way he walked on for the final scene, but there was no other indication of that.

Edgar rose from a crouching position to speak the final lines, suggesting his acceptance of the kingship. And so it was over, and we gave our all in the applause.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

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