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Review Round-up: Jacobi Scales Heights in Lear

Derek Jacobi has finally made good on his promise to tackle King Lear, opening in Michael Grandage's Donmar Warehouse production last night (7 December 2010, previews from 3 December).

Jacobi and Grandage have enjoyed a fruitful working relationship over the years, with their classic collaborations including The Tempest and Don Carlos, both of which transferred to the West End following runs at Sheffield Crucible, and more recently the Donmar West End production of Twelfth Night at Wyndham's, for which Jacobi won an Olivier for his performance as Malvolio.

In King Lear he is joined by Gina McKee, Justine Mitchell and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and Ron Cook as the Fool. It runs until 5 February 2011 prior to a national tour.

Maxwell Cooter

"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 ... Jacobi's Lear is a man of camp, capriciousness whose mood shifts from sunny levity to a darker disposition ... The production is blessed with strong performances from Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell... 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 ... 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... and Grandage's clear and uncluttered production ... 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."

Libby Purves
The Times

“As the King lies dead, his old heart broken, beside the body of the hanged Cordelia there falls a deep, appalled silence … This final scene is the distilled essence of despair, and in the Donmar's intimate space we share it. All is quiet after the deafening offstage sounds of storm and battle and the three hours' thud of running feet and rage … Sir Derek Jacobi is over 70: this, under the director Michael Grandage, is his first Lear and it is a privilege to see it. He brings it everything, technically and emotionally: and on top of that an extraordinary physical vigour. Only in the final scenes is he frail. Striding in from hunting, laying about him with a crop, uttering his demands, the greybeard is not short of energy, nor particularly attractive. He first becomes lovable in his almost paternal scenes with the Fool: a touching, deadpan Northerner as played by Ron Cook … I have never liked a Fool so much … One oddity, perhaps, of the director's vision is that Goneril and Regan take longer than usual to show any viciousness.”

Michael Billington

"The miracle of Michael Grandage's production is that it is fast (under three hours), vivid, clear and, thanks to a performance that reminds us why Derek Jacobi is a great classical actor, overwhelmingly moving ... Christopher Oram's set consists of paint-dappled wooden boards that turn the Donmar into a stockade ... But it is Jacobi's Lear that drives the production. And what is truly astonishing is the way he combines Lear's spiritual trajectory from blind arrogance to impotent wisdom with a sense of the character's tumultuous contradictions ... Jacobi quickly unleashes a monumental fury ... Jacobi's special quality... has always been his ability to forge a bond of sympathy with the audience: one thinks of his Cyrano, Peer Gynt or Philip II ... He is quite superb in the central mad scenes ... What also marks out Jacobi's performance is a sense of life's circularity. His features, through the alchemy of acting, seem to acquire in the final scenes an infant-like luminosity ... And there is intelligent support all round. Gina McKee's calculating Goneril is excellently contrasted with Justine Mitchell's manic Regan, driven into gleeful hysteria by the blinding of Paul Jesson's credulous Gloucester. Alec Newman's wickedly self-willed Edmund is also ideally offset by the transformative virtue of Gwilym Lee's Edgar. And Ron Cook's Fool is as remarkable in his silences, when he gazes on Lear with powerless compassion, as in his rebarbative, conscience-stabbing jests."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"Michael Grandage's production proves outstanding, the finest and most searching Lear I have ever seen, and in this small space it often achieves a shattering power … Christopher Oram's characteristically simple design, brilliantly lit by Neil Austin, consists of nothing more than whitewashed planks. There is no attempt to evoke a particular time and place. The play itself is allowed to conjure its own world through the power of Shakespeare's words and the strength and detail of the performances … Derek Jacobi's Lear is initially a testy, self-indulgent old man with a pink face, silver hair and a touch of camp about him … Jacobi, enjoying a blaze of autumnal glory as an actor, captures the full depth and breadth of the character … At less than three hours, this Lear hurtles along and you emerge feeling shaken, deeply moved and curiously uplifted - the infallible signs of a great tragic production.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Jacobi conveys his descent in exquisite detail, striking the right notes of exaggerated pomp, wounded majesty, paternal indignation and, as his tyranny turns to self-knowledge, a blighted, ordinary humanity ... In Grandage’s conception, the emphasis is on emotions rather than politics. The production has a wintry aesthetic, and Christopher Oram’s austere set of rough boards allows us to focus on Jacobi’s Lear. As his tragedy unfurls, he learns to dispense tenderness, but gets there via fierceness and fury, and the degree of violence that reverberates through Jacobi’s performance is crucial to the production ... When Gloucester (Paul Jesson) is blinded, the scene is shockingly bloody ... There’s potent support from Gina McKee ... Pippa Bennett-Warner is affecting as her benign sister Cordelia, Justine Mitchell contrastingly twitchy as malign Regan. Ron Cook’s Fool is a joyless joker whose commentary on Lear’s decline is mordant. Also impressive are Alec Newman ... and Michael Hadley’s gruffly sensible Earl of Kent ... It’s emotionally satisfying, and — as if one needed reminding — shows that Jacobi is an actor of rare technical skill and integrity."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Derek Jacobi produces an artful Lear, more believable than most ... This Lear ends in a grizzled, infantilised state ... Michael Grandage's production is staged in a Donmar which has had its walls and floorboards painted with a distressed white wash ... I rather approved of Miss Bennett-Warner's casting, and not just because she speaks beautifully. That eloquence is not shared by all the younger actors. Gideon Turner is indistinct as the Duke of Cornwall. Amit Shah's Oswald seems to have sashayed off the set of a television soap opera ... The high point of Sir Derek's performance is Lear's scene in the storm - 'you cataracts and hurricanoes' - which director Grandage brilliantly has him deliver in a sudden whisper. We are being taken into Lear's inner ear. I loved this touch. What a relief not to have that speech belted out over the din of wind machines, as so often happens.


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