Donmar Warehouse on tour
The Lowry, Salford
In the second major star-studded Shakespeare production to come to The Lowry from London this year, Derek Jacobi, whose famous TV roles range from I Claudius to the voiceover for the hallucinatory pre-school world of In The Night Garden, takes on the big role for a mature actor, Lear.
Although this has been part of the NTlive series of live theatre broadcasts by the National Theatre, this production, sold out for some time at The Lowry, comes from the Donmar Warehouse and is directed by outgoing artistic director Michael Grandage. Set by designer Christopher Oram in a white box formed by huge wooden beams covered in peeling paint with just enough of a gap between them to let the lightning leak through, this is in many ways a pared-down staging with the bare minimum of scenery—in fact just the occasional chair—which focusses attention very strongly on the actors; however the high platform of the proscenium stage in The Lowry's Lyric Theatre could never come close to reproducing the intensity of the intimate thrust stage at the Donmar.
The atmosphere of the opening scene rises quickly from everyday banality to becoming tense and electric once Lear loses his temper with Cordelia. However for the rest of the play, the actors struggle to transmit that intensity through the dark hole of the proscenium and into the vast auditorium, and many audience members, even quite near to the front, were complaining that they couldn't hear a lot of the dialogue. This made a production that seemed to be striving for intimacy come across as distant and rather flat. The storm scene tries to subvert expectations by becoming quiet, slow and internal, but on this stage it seemed a little odd, and intelligibility was not helped by heavy reverb effects on Lear's voice.
Having said that, there is a great deal to admire and enjoy in this production, not least some wonderful performances from the cast and some charming and sometimes unexpected humour. Jacobi inhabits the role of Lear perfectly as a difficult but loveable uncle who must at different times be humoured, pitied or feared. It really is an impressive performance and it is remarkable that he sustains that level of energy for nearly three hours. Ron Cook is wonderful as a rather weary Fool, providing the perfect foil for the troubled ex-King. There is also a very strong performance from Michael Hadley as Kent.
Whilst it may not seem fair to compare this production to the recent visit of the National Theatre's Hamlet to the same stage, Grandage's Lear is not able to grab and hold the audience's attention the way that earlier production did. There is a truly great central performance from Jacobi that is worth the price of a hard-to-acquire ticket by itself and there are some very good performances around him, but I certainly found my attention wandering on several occasions, which I blame on a failure to create the intensity of the Donmar stage in the vastly different and much bigger Lyric Theatre in Salford.
Philip Fisher reviewed this production at the Donmar
Reviewer: David Chadderton