The final scene in Shakespeare’s tragedy is played out to silence in a packed Grand Opera House as a foolish, fond old man takes his leave of the stage.
Let no-one tell you there’s no demand for drama. Productions as fine as this one from the Donmar, with actors as great as Derek Jacobi, will play to packed houses every night.
And Jacobi doesn’t disappoint. From the petulant bully who strides in demanding to know the price of love, to the frail, child-like figure who weeps over the death of his daughter, this is a most moving Lear.
Played against Christopher Oram’s stark, wintry set — walls and ceiling of whitewashed planks — this production relies on the power of the prose to paint the scenes. There are no distractions from the torments of Jacobi’s Lear.
Director Michael Grandage has shifted the emphasis of the play from the politics and power, and concentrated instead on the emotional drama, in which children turn on their fathers, and nature takes its revenge on fools. It’s a clean, uncluttered telling of the story, which unpicks the bond between parent and child; illustrating how easy it is to damage, yet how difficult it is to sever.
Lear first appears as an imperious ruler. Tetchy, silver-haired, and arrogant, he doesn’t suffer fools. So his descent into madness is as unsettling as it is sudden. He rants and rages until his mind is gone, and then — in the most powerful moment of the play — he summons up a storm with a whisper. Jacobi is magnificent in these scenes of madness, shifting from adult to child and from leader to lost soul in a matter of minutes.
The light goes out in his face, and his body seems to shrivel as hope dies within him.
The final moments of heartbreak are a masterclass in acting.
He’s given strong support by Ron Cook as the white-faced, compassionate, melancholy fool, who swaps mournful jokes with his master. He is the eyes of a king who refuses to see what is in front of him.
Gwilym Lee is a strong Edgar, and Paul Jesson is solid and sorrowful as Gloucester. Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell are the wicked sisters Goneril and Regan, whose cold and calculated manner hides a vicious violence.
Lear is not an easy play. And it’s certainly not a happy one. But as the sun rises at the end of the tragedy, Jacobi somehow leaves the audience with a sense of hope. All that is left of us is love, and this Lear’s legacy is of a loving father. A superb performance.
The king is dead. Long live the king.