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King Lear, review, The Lowry

Joan Davies thinks Jacobi cracks it but what about the coughs?

Published on March 24th 2011.

King Lear, review, The Lowry

An actor of the stature of Derek Jacobi performing in one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, King Lear, guarantees an advance sell-out at the Lowry’s huge Lyric Theatre.

Jacobi’s central performance is superb. In the opening scene Lear is clothed in the habit of command, the expectation of obedience. He’s capricious, cruelly so at times.

This production carries with it four and five star reviews from its December Donmar Theatre opening in London and, unlike many other touring productions, brings with it the full original cast.

In a highly lucid production from award-winning director Michael Grandage, Jacobi provides a complex, engaging and convincing performance as the once commanding king becomes subject to the cruelties of despicable daughters, the stormy forces of nature and his own declining faculties.

Lear, the character, commands loyalty and devotion from good men and women, despite his terrifying exercise of power: Jacobi the actor commands the stage and audience empathy as he is blown towards madness and despair, largely through forces unleashed by his own arrogance and misjudgement.

Lear, late in life, decides effectively to retire and to divide his kingdom between his three heirs, daughters Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Unaccountably he offers to divide the kingdom according to the degree of love each daughter can express.

Goneril and Regan, dishonestly effusive in their statements, gain half a kingdom each while the youngest, loyal and honest Cordelia is banished as a punishment for her inability to embellish the truth. Lear’s trust is betrayed by his eldest daughters whose cruelty escalates into unimaginable violence. Cordelia, despite rejection, remains the dutiful daughter, retaining love and loyalty.

Jacobi’s central performance is superb. In the opening scene Lear is clothed in the habit of command, the expectation of obedience. He’s capricious, cruelly so at times.

Jacobi suggests that it’s almost as a whim, a last entertaining exercise of power, that he embarks on the ultimately ruinous bartering of apparent love and dominion. In Jacobi’s Lear there’s an underlying consistency, intimations of madness in the early stages, and hints of the strengths that made and kept him king during the madness on the heath.

Shakespeare wastes no time in this play and clear story telling is a feature of this production. Scenery, a stockade of paint washed planks, is stark. Design is almost monochrome, the only colours some dusky pink spatters on The Fool’s costume and some blood spatters on the stockade.

Music, sound and lighting are modern, support the story, enhance and never obscure the text. Startlingly bright light flashes effectively through the planks to give a storm scene with almost silent lulls; Lear rails against the storm in a whisper, and is heard. The design team headed by Christopher Oram with lighting designer Neil Austin and composer and sound designer Adam Cork deserve credit for their effective simplicity.

There are some performances which stand out even with this strong cast. Recent RADA graduate Pippa Bennett-Warner is a highly impressive Cordelia. Her clear unforced voice and strong stage presence lend the character a strong moral authority.

Ron Cook as The Fool is a delight. Often the most sane character on stage, and a guardian of Lear’s sanity and conscience, though not the only element of humour in the production, he provides opportunity for reflection before the driving narrative again takes over.

Paul Jesson as Lear’s friend, and an equally wronged father, Gloucester, and Gwilym Lee as the dutiful son Edgar are equally excellent.

This production started out in the Donmar Warehouse, an intimate space that holds only a few hundred. The design team and most of the cast have adapted well to the grand scale of the Lyric, but there are a few occasions when words are lost.

Sometimes because actors speak too quickly or, as in the blinding scene, are understandably over-speaking one another. Within the pace of action this is understandable, but perhaps needed more adjustment.

My only other criticism would be those members of the audience who have coughs but do not have muffling handkerchiefs. I do not understand why this has become so fashionable.

There may still be a few standing seats left. Take some comfortable shoes. This is certainly a production worth catching. Jacobi’s Lear is one which will be remembered for its lucidity and humanity.

The Donmar Warehouse’s production of Shakespeare’s King Lear is at The Lowry until Saturday 26th March.

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