"Don't grow old." It's a too-pat theme for such a deep work as King Lear, of course, but it's one of the obvious lessons any viewer (or, too often, reader) might reasonably take from Shakespeare's most titanic tragedy.
Few of us look forward to aging, but once in a while we may indulge in anticipating with pleasure the greying of someone else—and it's all theater's fault. A part of me has been secretly waiting for a few dozen years for Derek Jacobi to reach the age where he could plausibly play Lear.
The time has come. In the event, Sir Derek is more limber and energetic at 72 than many a 40-something can claim to be. The "oldness" of his Lear is of the spirit.
Derek Jacobi (King Lear) and Pippa Bennett-Warner (Cordelia) in the Donmar Warehouse production of KING LEAR. Photo: John Persson
Not that he isn't eye-openingly brilliant at portraying a proud man's decay from vigorous, optimistic retiree to tattered madman. He is. This is the best Lear I've seen, and Jacobi the most pathetically human embodiment of Shakespeare's tragic King. It's a beast of a role (a "peak in the Himalayas," as he told the New York Times) in a beast of a play; neither is an undertaking for the faint of heart or weak of body.
But this lean and muscular staging, directed by the Donmar Warehouse's outgoing Artistic Director Michael Grandage, sucks Lear down to its essence. The bleached timbers of the backdrop suggest medieval times, but the characters' plain robes and the broad expanse of the bare stage place us anywhere and nowhere. The map on which the retiring king delineates his division of his domain splays across the floor in abstract shapes and earth tones. Much later, during the climactic battle scene, surely that's the terrifying sound of a helicopter throbbing overhead. Shakespeare knew what he was doing, setting this tragedy of blood and betrayal in a mythical era rather than a political present. It's a story for the ages.