Michael Grandage directs Derek Jacobi in a typically fuss-free production at the Donmar Warehouse which sets the politics, battles and infighting against an austere white background.
In fact, Christopher Oram’s design – which encases the entire auditorium in wood panelling with a distressed paint effect – brings a sense of claustrophobia to this King Lear. It is a stark, disorientating backdrop which seems to suggest something of the equally disorientated mind of King Lear as his mental disintegration progresses.
Lack of props means audiences for this minimalist production must use their imagination to conjure the many different locations in King Lear: the palace, the heath, the town of Dover. Neil Austin’s lighting and Adam Cork’s sound are aids in this, evoking battles on the horizon and moving us from indoors to outdoors, but a hefty dose of visualisation is still necessary.
Right from the start Jacobi’s Lear is childlike. Like a spoilt only child used to getting his own way, he is petulant and melodramatic when he doesn’t. His over-reaction to youngest daughter Cordelia’s refusal to pander to him comes from an ego unused to being so bruised.
The tone is therefore well established by Jacobi for the King’s descent into madness, exacerbated by the betrayal of his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan. Becoming ever more childlike – with flashes of adult wrath – he moves and speaks with the demeanour of a small child, encouraged by his ever-present Fool.
Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell are effective as sisters Goneril and Regan, whose devious self-promotion gives them the upper hand over the men in the play on many occasions; at one point Goneril literally has her husband by the balls. Both lust understandably after Alec Newman’s dashing, conniving Edmund, the Earl of Gloucester’s illegitimate son, who is doing some scheming of his own. A victim both of Edmund’s plans and the sisters’ spite, Gloucester (Paul Jesson) is a sympathetic figure, brutally abused by others. Here the simplicity of the set comes into its own, highlighting the gory horror of Gloucester’s eye-gouging. Deemed a traitor, blood spills from his eyes, vivid red against white.
Amid all the backstabbing – sometimes literally – and infighting, the relationship between the outcast Edgar (Gwilym Lee) and his blinded father Gloucester is particularly touching.
So too are Lear’s final scenes. Wearing a cream smock – a contrast to the dark robes of the rest of the cast – Jacobi cradles Pippa Bennett-Warner’s lifeless Cordelia in his arms, his face becoming ever redder and his eyes watering in his anguish.