Entering in furs, Derek Jacobi’s Lear smoothly moves from magisterial elder to petulant child, from destructive logician to simpering madman. His descent into madness is more sudden than in some productions but nonetheless subtly executed, finding the complex interplay of the aging king’s frustrations and disappointments in a powerhouse performance of red-hot rages and lamenting whimpers. His vocal control is astounding and, whether echoing whispered soliloquies or delighting at the witticisms of his fool, Jacobi’s reading softly analyses the many isolations of humanity in Shakespeare’s laden words.
Grandage’s players are extraordinary. Ron Cook’s Fool is sharper than your average jester, relishing the wisdom of his riddles and soothing the tortured king with an endless arsenal of puns and jokes. As Lear’s rebellious daughters Regan and Goneril, Justine Mitchell and Gina McKee make a convincingly serpentine allegiance. McKee’s performance shifts between malicious cruelty and breathless sexuality, capturing something of the “unsexed” Lady Macbeth and the other famous ball-breakers of Shakespearean drama.
Clocking in at less than three hours, the production keeps a quick pace. Whilst Lear’s descent into madness feels rather rushed, Grandage somehow manages to maintain dramatic dynamism without wholly compromising the integrity of its canonical characters, piercing the dark issues at the centre of the play with a shattering honesty and plainness.