King Lear

Standing room only at the Grand Opera House, but it's worth it for Derek Jacobi's 'chilling whispers' as the dotard king

It's not often that the Belfast stage welcomes an actor of the calibre of Sir Derek Jacobi, and for a few days it was uncertain whether Donmar's production of King Lear would make it to these shores at all: Jacobi had lost his voice.

But rumours of cancellation and understudies notwithstanding, Jacobi was there. His audience spanned all layers of the population, with a surprising gaggle of excited teenagers. All performances were sold out, latecomers eagerly scrambling for hastily conceived standing tickets.

Unannounced, two characters tramp on stage, their conversation instantly silencing the hubbub of an excited audience, setting the tone for a brisk production of King Lear. The spartan set, designed by Christopher Oram, consists solely of plastered boards, without further props or furnishings, and evokes more a bunker than a castle.

In it, we find the Jacobi's austere and crew cut Lear carving up his kingdom and casting out those who displease him. First he exiles his youngest daughter Cordelia (Pippa Bennett-Warner) whose simply expressed affection is beyond his ken and then his loyal advisor Kent (Michael Hadley, lisping) who warns him against rashness.

Lear is eventually forced to join them there, becoming a victim of his own guilt and rash decisions. Meanwhile, the sons of Lear's other advisor, Gloucester (a solid Paul Jesson), have their own power struggle.

Reading a synopsis of Shakespeare's King Lear is like watching an Eastenders Christmas Special without knowing the characters, and while much becomes clear in the theatre, the soap analogy holds. Shakespeare shows us some universal truths about human relationships, in this case, the resentments and power struggles within families.

King Lear is also the story of a once powerful man who doesn't manage to find a new fulfilment of his life in retirement. We can understand his two daughters, who are not looking forward to having their father spend his time alternating between their homes with his retinue. They feel it's better that father is placed in a home, and they hope that he'll peacefully adjust to an institutionalized life of community meals and bingo. Lear, however, will have none of it, and while at first he rants and rages, his powerless anger eventually gives way to emotional defeat and a retreat into an infantile state.

The language of King Lear is often knotty on the page. It is down to Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, to make sure that the play doesn't get mired in its production values. He allows the characters and their actions to speak for themselves, without distraction.

The actors' positions and grouping on stage clarify relationships, and movement is cleverly orchestrated to stimulate the eye. The full breadth and depth of the stage is used to suggest larger-scale action, giving it a striking visual dynamism.

Dark costumes in old-fashioned cuts but modern materials give the play a timeless feel. By his clothes we know the man. So Gloucester's son Edgar (Gwiylim Lee, his character's arc mirroring Lear's) is exiled and debased, covered in lime and wearing only a loin cloth. Meanwhile the bastard Edmund (Alec Newman) comes with a swashbuckler's shirt and boots. The actor's interpretation at first seems all too self-conscious and broad. Then we recognize a swaggering rock star in Edmund, out for fame and fortune.

Lear's scheming daughter Goneril (Gina McKee) wears a tight sheath dress that accentuates the underbelly from which so many of her desires spring, from where her hoarse voice is pushed upwards. It sounds like panto, but it's subtle. When Goneril is lashed by her raging father's tongue, we see the tears in her eyes. She's got little cause to love him and both she and her sister Regan (an unremarkable Justine Mitchell) know that it takes a combination of flattery and guardedness to survive Lear's court. By comparison good Cordelia's honesty is hopelessly naive, suggesting that she may be new to court.

The casting of a black actress to an otherwise white family adds an extra dimension. It suggests that Lear had two wives, and his youngest child is doubly isolated. She is Cinderella, with Goneril and Regan as her evil stepsisters.

Costumes and sets are in a Noir aesthetic, all shades of black, grey and white. The atmosphere is further enhanced by Neil Austin's expert lighting, which comes from the side to throw shadows on faces and background.

The only bit of colour is the Fool's doublet, as faded as his enthusiasm.The Fool, a bone-dry Ron Cook, knows it's all going to end in tears. He tells his jokes out of duty and habit. Any hope of being heard by the monomaniac King long gone. As Lear rages, the Fool's doublet is increasingly the same hue as Jacobi's face.

After the interlude we get splashes of red - the blood from when Gloucester, framed for treason, has his eyes plucked out. It is surprisingly brutal, with an edge-of-the-seat intensity. Violence begets violence.

Oddly the play's climatic moment takes place before the interlude. Lear is locked out by his two daughters and finds himself lost (both practically and emotionally) in a storm. The King hurls himself around, his shape slashed by beams emitting from rents in the stage. The previously minimalist sound design by Adam Cork is now used to amplify Lear's ravings with simple but powerful effects.

Lear's key lines, however, are not shouted over the din of the tempest. They are delivered in a chilling whisper as the noise stops and time itself freezes. The storm externalizes and absorbs his anger, giving way to the calmer lunacy of a second childhood.

Jacobi plays the mad Lear with an irritatingly high-pitched voice, its intended whimsy belying the venom of his dotage. He feeds imaginary cheese to a mouse before stamping on it, and relishes a graphic tirade about the evils of female sexuality. It takes the death of Cordelia (after his other daughters) before Lear is stripped of all his titles, roles, responsibilities and guilt. It is only then that we can fully feel for him.

The second half of the play is choppy. The plot rushes by as if determined to reach the end as quickly as possible. Jacobi may be the production's main attraction, but the rest of the cast seem hard done by. Characters are dispatched off-hand and off-stage. Gloucester's death is only mentioned in passing by his son and is particularly unfulfilling.

Still, modern audiences don't have the seat flesh they had in Shakespeare's time and even at a trim three hours the play is long enough. It ends with a moving scene where the now fully humbled and human Lear mourns over the corpse of his youngest daughter, then croaks himself, suddenly and without much of a fuss.

The living and the dead return once more, fresh faced and restored to health, to be greeted with a standing ovation. Perhaps Jacobi and his fellow thespians are used to it, but judging by the gratitude of the Belfast audience, it seems that King Lear's storm has left in its wake a brand new generation of Shakespeare-lovers.