I always dread going to see ‘King Lear’. In the most nakedly unbearable of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the ageing King, wishing to creep ‘unburdened’ towards death, foolishly divides his land between the worst of his three daughters. By the time death is ready to take him he has lost everything: daughters, dignity, the loyal Fool who showed him his true nature, his clothing and, to a cruelly imperfect extent, his mind.
Derek Jacobi’s Lear descends to the depths of desolation then, without recourse to faith, hope or sentimentality, rises to embrace the inevitable end that awaits us all. There’s nothing natural about director Michael Grandage’s stage: the blizzard of whitish grey paint smeared on floor, ceiling and wall take us directly into Lear’s inner storm in a way which the larger, louder and more bombastic stagings I’ve seen have never done before.
Grandage is brilliant at judging the climate of a play and making it live. In his last outing with Jacobi, who played the arch comedy-villain Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’, Grandage washed the whole production with the sound then the newly clean aftermath of the storm that begins it.
In ‘King Lear’, a terrible tempest lies at the heart of the play: the famous storm scene often has the old man and his followers (the semi-naked Poor Tom and his Fool) howling out desperate insights in the teeth of a gale that destroys the whole state. Grandage’s brilliant move is to take you into the eye of the storm: Jacobi’s Lear fixes you with glittering eyes and whispers his inner thoughts into moments of silence, that suddenly punctuate the raging of the elements.
Jacobi’s descent from a powerful and angry old man to a frail wisp of regret is heartbreaking: the vividly unnatural setting and his royal status don’t detract from the piteous intimacy of his performance (and of this small but perfect theatre); his suspicion that he is ‘not in my perfect mind’ is as applicable to every man as it would have been were he trailing catheters from his white nightshirt. His contemptuous daughters Goneril and Regan are superbly embodied by Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell: McKee’s pursed lips convey every shade of subtle cruelty and sensuality while Mitchell is repulsively enflamed when her husband blinds her father’s faithful nobleman, Gloucester.
Pity, not cruelty or bombast is the keynote here. And, in an age where directors and actors more often seek empathy or sympathy, it is a rare and delicate return to the source of classical tragedy: a humility and compassion which sustains your spirits through the worst of tragedies, real or imagined.