Review of Donmar King Lear

This is by no means a formal review in any sense of the term.  These are just some things jotted down after seeing it through the wonderful NT Live program at my local theatre.  I don’t know if anyone will be interested, but here it is:

First off, that was amazing.   I had high expectations of Jacobi, of course, and every one of my expectations he met.  The madness scenes were so delightfully paternal.  It is as though the only time that he could manage to feel compassion for others or want to take care of them in any way was during his madness.  Also, he managed to make some of the most high-rhetoric lines in Shakespeare sound almost colloquial and natural.  An achievement unto itself.  His relationship with Cordelia was touching and not because of the actress playing Cord (Pippa Bennett-Lee).  (Truth be told, I wasn’t very fond of her.  She was far too declamatory for my tastes.)  But Jacobi invested so much emotionally in the relationship that the recognition scene in act 5 actually made me cry.  And when he came back on (Howl, howl…), that was some of the most heart wrenching classical theatre I’ve ever seen.  There’s nothing to fault about his performance.  When the introduction claimed that this was the Lear for a generation, I thought, ‘Of course this is this generation’s Lear… hype, meaningless hype.’  Thing is, I think they were right.

The set design I was skeptical about at first.  I have seen so many variations of the black box that it is now beginning to seem lazy to my eyes.  Also, as a onetime actor, it presents challenges to an actor that I never really liked.  (I always want to have something in my hands.)  But the simplicity of the design worked very well overall.  In such a small space, it would have undoubtedly have had the effect of drawing the audience into the show, as though you were at a rehearsal rather than a performance.  The actual intimacy of the space was counteracted by the parallel white of the boards that gave an impression of height that the space really doesn’t have.  It seemed to be larger than it was.  The lighting and sound design was never obtrusive, and indeed the sotto voce “Blow winds” really worked I thought.  Instead of external rage, you could really see into the mind of someone whose heart is breaking (and who might very well be having a stroke!).
Michael Hadley Photo from

Kent, played by Michael Hadley was a real stand out among the supporting cast.  I have always sympathized with Gloucester – poor deluded and suicidal Gloucester – than with Kent.  He’s always seemed too much of a fairy tale character for me to really hook into.  But Hadley’s performance was stellar.  Here’s a man who takes his duty very seriously.  I’m so glad that they kept in the lines about Kent’s eating fish and then eating meat when he’s in disguise.  I know it is hard to play up things like his position as a Christian in a pagan world in a modern production, but I’m still glad that those were there.  There was one point in act three, when Gloucester came in to usher the king and his motley troop back to some shelter, where Kent just leaned forward and stretched out his back.  You just got this sense of incredible exhaustion.  Talking about it with a friend later, she exclaimed how Kent was a soldier.  Both literally and figuratively.  He’s tired of putting up with all this shit from other people, but he keeps doing it.  Brilliant performance.
Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell, photo from NT website
The other two great stars of the show, I thought, were Goneril and Regan (Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell).  Given how many times I have read that play, I thought I saw most of their characters already.  I thought that I had a grasp on what kind of people they were.  But clearly the image in my mind was flat and washed out because when those two spoke, they breathed a new life into the characters that I had never known was there.  The archness – almost like a Disney witch, but never so flat – of Gina McKee as Goneril was withering.  And Regan’s journey over the course of the play – from subdued follower of other’s plans to lustful hunger and then her death – I had always known but never seen so tragically.  They were fascinating.  I wished that they had more stage time, which was something I never thought that I would say.
There were, of course, some less than stellar performances, and by that I’m not damning with faint praise.  There were no outrageously bad performances.  Well, Cornwall wasn’t hot, but we will get to that.  No, by less than stellar, I mean just that.  Edmund (Alec Newman), for instance, did a very passable job… but…  See, I have very particular views on Edmund.  I used to do “Thou, Nature” as my audition speech back in the day.  And though he did a fine job, he was simply outclassed by the sheer energy and commitment of the performances around him.  One of the things about the character that I thought was irksome was in the first scene.  Gloucester accepted Edmund right from the beginning and had a paternal relationship with him from the moment they walked on stage.  This, to me, is a misreading of the beginning of their relationship.  Gloucester has got in trouble in the past for having sex out of wedlock.  Edmund is a bastard son that almost cost him quite a bit, perhaps even his life – Lear intimates as much later.  Gloucester even says that he has blushed to admit he is his son.  Why start them off as sniveling son and respectful father?  Why not – as I believe is indicated in the lines – have Gloucester only barely accepting his boy and then, on force of evidence, believing that he has had it wrong this whole time?  It makes the journeys for Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar so much more interesting.

Gwilym Lee photo from
Speaking of Edgar (Gwilym Lee)… one of the strange things I thought about the part of Edgar (who for the most part was really quite good in the role: athletic, desperate, noble…) was his inability, refusal or poor direction in not adopting radically different accents for the radically different characters that he has to take on.  Lord knows that there is an imaginative license necessary to make theatre work.  For instance, a friend of mine wished that Jacobi hadn’t been so obviously breathing after Lear was dead.  I didn’t care, because the imagination demanded that he was dead.  But that said, when Edgar talks to his own father in his own voice, you can maybe *maybe* get over that.  Gloucester is blind, he’s suicidal, he’s probably not paying attention to the voice of the guy who is taking him to Dover.  But when the guy who has lead him to Dover sounds exactly the same as the “fisherman” who supposedly witnessed his fall?  Now that is stretching imagination a bit.  Maybe it is my interest in radio drama and voice work, but… seriously?  Couldn’t he have put on a stronger accent?  I noted that he had changed it a little, but it seemed so slight a change in the vowels that it was hard to credit.
The Fool, played by Ron Cook, was fine.  The relationship between Lear and the Fool was one of two old drinking buddies in a way, two men who have known each other for a long, long time.  I’ve always seen the Fool in more youthful, acrobatic, musical and (if I may coin a word) prestidigitary terms.  I was happy to have my impression of the Fool challenged, but I’m not sure how great an impression it made.  It’s possible that, like Edmund, he was just having an off-energy night or was simply being outclassed by Jacobi and Hadley, but I’m not sure.

The only person on the stage who I actually disliked was Cornwall.  I’m never sure if, when I dislike an actor who is playing a loathsome character, it is because I dislike the actor’s interpretation of the character or that interpretation is wonderful because I dislike the character so much.  I think this time I will actually lean on the side of disapproving of the actor because he seemed to be acting in a style that had nothing to do with anything else on stage.  Oh, everything was there.  Hips thrust forward, swaggering walk, dismissive tone… but it all sounded like he should be in a modern piece, not in a work of classical drama.  The words were too much for him.  The physical presence was right, but he couldn’t get across the meaning of the words.  I think the reason why I believe it was the actor not the character that I dislike is that when the actor came back on as a messenger in Act Five, he tried to aurally upstage Kent.  It may have been a youthful slip or nerves, but I’m still a bit leery.

Goodness, this has gone on far longer than I intended.

Brian Blessed – has he played Lear?  Does anyone know?
 One thing I thought afterwards was – Lear was supposed to be a massive, larger than life warrior figure in his youth.  You know who I would love to see at Lear?  Brian Blessed.  He’s the only classical actor that I know who I can imagine in his younger days having actually hefted a battle axe (Flash Gordon notwithstanding), and he could really pull off the early scenes.  I wonder how he would deal with the tender scenes with Cordelia, mind you.That would be really interesting.

I could go on.  I really hope the NT decides to make these performances available to educators at some point in the future because that was one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen in my life.  I never get so emotionally invested in a piece that I cry, but Jacobi drew it out of me.  It was almost enough to forgive him for thinking that de Vere wrote Shakespeare.  Silly Jacobi.  Nevertheless – what did YOU think?


3 thoughts on “Review of Donmar King Lear

  1. So, because I have experience with the play as an actor, that discredits my review? I'm not sure I understand the logic behind that. If you disagree with my assessment of the performance, that is fine, but I would ask you to keep your comments to constructive criticism.


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