Sunday, March 13, 2011

"King Lear" - March 2011

It's from one of the UK's foremost theatre companies, stars one of the country's most esteemed performers and has garnered five star reviews left, right and centre. So why did the Donmar Warehouse production with Derek Jacobi as King Lear leave us unmoved and, quite frankly, disappointed?

Don't get me wrong, this is in no way a bad show, it's just safe and unimaginative. I'll admit that I am a sucker for directors that play around with Shakespeare - either in setting or a complete re-interpretation but while I'm not averse to productions taking a classic approach I do need them to put some kind of stamp or character on it. With the quality of the cast and production team involved here - and yes, the ticket price - I wanted something more than I could expect to see from any local theatre. And we just didn't get it.

Jacobi is of course the main draw, and as both the 'angry' Lear and the 'old, frail' Lear his performance is pitched perfectly but I found his 'mad' Lear badly misjudged. The scene where Lear reunites with Gloucester was cringeworthily over the top - much closer to someone faking madness than a genuine and moving failing of the mind (only one step short of Blackadder's 'wibble' moment) . Watching a performance of King Lear with elderly older parents and grandparents (like we did here) should increase its impact. Given that it didn't resonate with us, even under those circumstances, it's difficult to consider it an overwhelming success. King Lear should have no difficulty in finding a relevance in the modern world.

Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell give fine performances as Goneril and Regan; revelling in their misdeeds, but Pippa Bennett-Warner's Cordelia has so little stage time she struggles to make an impression or give the character any real definition. Ron Cook succeeds in making the Fool hugely sympathetic - his affection for Lear shines through the verbal barbs and the scene where he appears usurped by 'Poor Tom' was the one moment in the play to generate any real sense of emotion. Alec Newman's Edmund and Michael Hadley's Kent are also particularly noteworthy amongst a strong ensemble cast.

I'm struggling to work out if our response was out of kilter with the rest of the Theatre Royal audience - there was certainly prolonged applause but not the standing ovation that might have been expected for the pairing of Jacobi & Lear. Perhaps we should adopt the attitude of Lynn Phillips, a friend who saw the show earlier in the week - "It's culture - you're not supposed to enjoy it."

King Lear has completed its run at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and continues its UK tour.