My last theatre visit of 2010 was the much-anticipated KING LEAR at the Donmar with Derek Jacobi playing the King more sinned-against than sinning (actually that's debatable).
As I said it was much-anticipated and when the lights went down I had a real sense of "Eyes down, here we go..." However despite many excellent things going for it, I felt afterwards a slight sense of disappointment. It was the production I had expected to see: well-acted, clearly directed, well-designed and lit... but all very mannered and contained. Maybe I am just used to the Grandage Donmar house-style.
Michael Grandage has given us a no-nonsense production that does nothing to divert attention from the text - it's one of the clearest and speediest LEARs I have seen.
Christopher Oram's setting also does nothing to pull focus from the text or performers - bare boards daubed with dabs of white paint, the smell of which still tweaks the nose, and costumes of black or grey. The production is atmospherically lit by the excellent Neil Austin.
Derek Jacobi's Lear is, as expected, beautifully thought-through and he invests his speeches with shades of meaning which make you feel you are hearing them for the first time. At all times however I felt that he and Grandage were plotting a course to the last scene - even in his maddest moments, I always felt Jacobi had one foot in the floor so to speak.
I think the problem I had with the production was that it had been cast so there would be no fireworks to distract from Jacobi's blazing rocket. Not that the acting was bad, they all just seemed to build to a certain point and then stop. I remember back to Ian Holm's stunning Lear at the Cottesloe - he dazzled, but so did Michael Bryant's Fool, Barbara Flynn and Amanda Redman's Goneril and Regen, Finbar Lynch's seductively evil Edmund et al. Here, the actors seem to knowingly stop short of pulling the focus from Jacobi.
I feel a bit guilty as I write this that I seem to be putting the blast on it - I did enjoy it and am mindful of how lucky I am to get a chance to see it as I presume the run is sold out and it will be unlikely to transfer. The good news is that the production will be screened live in cinemas here and abroad as the first production outside of the National Theatre to be so filmed in the NT's LIVE project - click HERE for details.
So... good things in the production: a great pulling-the-carpet-from-under-expectations moment by having the boarded set rattle and lighting quiver between the cracks during the storm scene but stop for Jacobi to whisper his "Blow winds" speech which is all the more unsettling for being done so; Justine Mitchell's Regen who, after dropping her placid and complaisant nature when confronted by Gloucester, made one wish that she had more scenes in the latter stages of the play; Ron Cook's cautionary Fool who showed again how great the role is when entrusted to an actor worthy of it.The most sublime moments belong to Jacobi however - his turn-on-a-groat changes from sovereign security to apoplectic rage when confronted by Cordelia's refusal to put her love for him into words, his violence in cursing Goneril to childlessness, his childlike madness, his joyful hopes to Cordelia that "We two alone will sing like birds" in hoped-for captivity and of course, his playing of the final heartbreaking scene.
All in all, a very suitable way to end a year of theatregoing.