Last night we went to see my last play of the year, 'King Lear' at the Donmar Warehouse. Now, shocking as it might seem, I've never seen 'King Lear' on stage or (and it's at this point my shame rises and blushes my cheeks) read the play - I am a virgin when it comes to Lear. We'd booked tickets to see Derek Jacobi in 'King Lear' back in the summer and it was nice to finally have it come round at last, especially since we were in the second row of the stalls.
I have history with Mr Jacobi. Yes, I watched 'I Clavdivs' when it was first broadcast (I did Latin at school y'know). I saw him on his tour with 'Hamlet' in 1977 or 1978 . I've seen him on stage in supporting parts a couple of times and in the audience at the Donmar and elsewhere - it's nice to see an actor that actually likes to be part of the audience for live theatre as well as it being his profession. But I've not seen him with the weight of an entire play on his shoulders since 'Hamlet' 30-odd years ago and, last night, he excelled.
'King Lear' is not a one-man show, of course, and, as well as Derek Jacobi in the title role, we also had the excellent Gina McKee as Goneril, Justine Mitchell as Regan and Ron Cook as the Fool, as well as a dozen other characters. It's the first time I've seen Gina on stage (but have seen her loads on telly) and was most impressed with her cool portrayal of Goneril in comparison with the almost manic playing of her sister and rival Regan. Cordelia was played by Pippa Bennett-Warner in, what I think is her first big role, and she was very good, a nice, subtle performance. I was also impressed by Michael Hadley as Kent, Paul Jesson as Gloucester and Gwilym Lee as 'young' Gloucester, spending much of the play in loincloth and dirt but delivering a subtle performance. It's a quiet joy to see a cast with such consummate acting skills playing off one another and clearly putting so much into their performance.
At some point in the first half I remember thinking that this was both excellent writing and excellent acting, bringing Shakespeare's thoughts to life in front of me on a bare stage. It might be quite a bleak play but the writing and intent are clear and easy to understand and that's partially what gives the play it's power and why it's still regularly performed. It must give the actors headaches though, trying to pitch that level of emotion for every performance. There were no frills or fancies, simple costumes, a stage empty of props most of the time and the direction led to a speedy play, bringing it in in under three hours.
The final scenes are, of course, full of blood and death - it's a tragedy, after all - most of which is off-stage. Lear dies on stage at the end of the play, an excellent death scene by Derek Jacobi, not over-played or over-long, but which, for me, was trumped by the last words from the Duke of Kent as he holds Lear's dead body, " I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; My master calls me, I must not say no." After the way he's been treated by Lear throughout most of the play it's odd to think that Kent still wants to follow his liege, but this suggests there are years of friendship before the play begins to warrant such devotion. It was very touching and excellent craftsmanship.
If you get the chance to see this production then do so - it's a reward to see it.