King Lear, Donmar Warehouse, London

The word “nothing” echoes throughout King Lear and it is the keyword, too, for Michael Grandage’s superb staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy, led by Derek Jacobi. This beautiful, austere production unfolds on a near empty set, designer Christopher Oram dressing the whole auditorium in simple white-washed boards, so that we are enclosed in the same space as the characters. It is down to the acting ensemble to summon the world of the play and to shape the story, and they do so with clarity and economy. Above all, though, what counts in this barren, intimate space is emotional veracity and in this the production excels.

The shape of the play emerges vividly, as it contrasts possession and dispossession, loyalty and betrayal, loss and gain, cruelty and humanity. The production spirals down to Lear’s epiphany on the heath when, stripped of power and wealth, he sees man for what he is, “a poor, bare, forked animal”, and is protected only by companions who share his vulnerability but are abundant in compassion.

The production subtly fuses internal and external worlds, most notably in the tempest. It is presaged by Neil Austin’s eerie storm lighting, erupts in a blaze of sound and light that threatens to break down the back wall but then drops to a distant hum as Jacobi delivers “blow winds” in a whisper, so that we seem to be in his mind. The sweep of the tragedy, the terrible swiftness with which brutality gains sway and the struggle for hope all emerge here. But it is in the detailed grounding of the characters that the production holds you fast.

At the centre, Jacobi gives a fine and moving reading of Lear. He begins in jovial complacency, delighted with his plan to split his kingdom. Even here, petulance peeps through: his insistence on his daughters’ public display of love occurs to him as a capricious whim. When thwarted by Cordelia’s integrity, he lashes out imperiously. Jacobi emphasises this lack of self-knowledge and the gradual decline into senility: even as he rants viciously at his daughters, he seems bewildered by his own behaviour, and his sudden, quiet plea to his Fool, “Let me not be mad”, is tinged with real fear. Very rarely he becomes a little arch but, overwhelmingly, his performance is striking in its honesty. He is immensely moving as, reunited with Cordelia, he tentatively tastes one of her tears to see whether it is real, and heartbreaking as he struggles to resuscitate her lifeless body.

There are excellent performances, too, from Paul Jesson as Gloucester, Michael Hadley as Kent and Ron Cook as a sad, wise Fool, while Gina McKee gives Goneril a subtle emotional journey. Alec Newman’s Edmund has vigour but could do with more sly charisma. Without a social context we lose the significant political impact of the chaos. But no Lear is perfect. This one is simple, stark and very good.

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