The compact Donmar stage might seem constricting for an epic tragedy such as this but Michael Grandage’s production gets straight to the heart of the fragility of familial relationships.
The opening scene is played almost as parlour game as Derek Jacobi's king, asks his daughters for their proclamations of love almost as an afterthought and laughing at her answer of nothing. Kent's lays out a giggle too, as if it's a moment of levity. How quickly the mood changes: Jacobi's Lear is a man of camp, capriciousness whose mood shifts from sunny levity to a darker disposition. The “blow winds and crack your cheeks” speech is delivered in a hushed monotone, eyes firmly closed as if it were an incantation.
The production is blessed with strong performances from Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell as Goneril and Regan. McKee particularly is a smouldering presence, eyeing Alec Newman's Edmund from the opening scene right: this is a compelling mixture of sexiness and villainy. Mitchell’s Regan’s mask of courtliness slips when she lets out a wild whoop at the prospect of blinding Gloucester; a choice pair of sisters these. And Pippa Bennett-Warner is a touching Cordelia too.
There are good performances too from Newman and Gwilym Lee as the warring brothers, a solid Gloucester from Paul Jesson and a touchingly sad, white-faced fool from Ron Cook, effortlessly swapping gags with his master. We have been waiting some time for Jacobi's Lear and he doesn't wholly disappoint but we do lose some of the full horror of his descent to madness – but then, where does eccentricity end and madness begin? What Jacobi does capture perfectly is how fragile are the bonds that hold families together and how quickly they can be rent asunder.
This is a rapid Lear – coming it and under three hours – and Grandage’s clear and uncluttered production, coupled with Christopher Oram’s simple bare-boarded set, gets straight to the heart of the tragedy. What’s missing is some of the political dimension that presents crumbling England but Jacobi’s wise-cracking, fragile and ultimately human Lear is a compelling presence.