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Lear in Time & Motion

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There I was, entering the seasonal swing of things, and getting in touch with my inner three year-old at Peppa Pig's Party, when along comes King Lear, like a juggernaut on the toy car ride.

But, d'you know what, despite of all the eye-gouging and bad behaviour, the new Donmar Warehouse King Lear is not far off being tragedy for tots: it's certainly soft round the edges, and the blood is obviously faked.

No-one's going to come along and speak it more beautifully than Derek Jacobi, but I disagreee with Michael Billington this morning when he says that the performance deserves to be ranked alongside Paul Scofield and John Wood.

Scofield was a barbaric, primeval Lear, Wood the completest tragedian with his quivering intellect, febrile sense of comedy and utterly elasticated way with the verse. Above all , those two great actors were exciting and dangerous.

Jacobi is an actor of the sweetest temperament, incapable almost of making you feel uncomfortable. His rage is most reasonable, and there's no arguing with his own judgement that his Lear is more sinned against than sinning.

His complexion is ruddy, his hair is cropped, his boots are shiny and his manner is old school regal, like a headmaster who winces at the very thought of people letting him down or not doing their homework.

There's nothing much wrong with Michael Grandage's production, apart from some odd cuts, and it belts along at well under three hours, almost unheard of in the history of King Lear. But elemental it ain't. Cataclysmic it is not.

Whatever the audience thinks, they will not be bored. But nor will they be stirred and shaken as we were by Scofield and Wood, not to mention Gambon, Stephens, Warner and Holm, to name but four more of my favourite Lears.

And as for the critical verdict: the eyes have it, with Paul Jesson's Gloucester losing his, Derek Jacobi closing his while he bides the pelting of a pitiless storm, and Ron Cook as the Fool painting over his with a clown make-up.

Of course, there's nothing like the up close and personal effect of sitting in the Donmar listening to the greatest poetry in our language. This point was not lost on our former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who was happily ensconced alongside Arts Council chair Liz Forgan.

You see, that's the type of audience the Donmar attracts. I got a very funny look when I said that I looked forward to seeing them both at Bagpuss later this week.

But before arriving at that cultural plateau, there's the tricky landscape of another festive minefield of misery and despair to negotiate in Alan Ayckbourn's Seasons Greetings at the National Theatre tonight.

You have to keep moving in this business; or, as Sir Toby Belch says to Sir Andrew Aguecheek, "Taste your legs, sir, put 'em to Motion..." Sir Andrew Motion, distinguished biographer of Keats and Philip Larkin, needs no such encouragement.

He looks as fit as a fiddle and ready for anything, rather like Sir Derek himself as Lear. The great lyrical actor is 72 now, but he still exudes a boyish charm and vulnerability, which makes for an extremely interesting Lear but not, I think, a truly great one.


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