Milton Keynes Theatre
Saturday 19 March 2011 (MAT)
The king of Lears
I am embarrassed to admit that I spent a good ten minutes at work last week, explaining how the tunes to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Baa Baa Black Sheep and the Alphabet song were essentially the same. (Bet you're all singing them now?!)
I have officially turned into the sort of person that I used to want to slap - very hard - so when one of my colleagues said that he thought I was in desperate need of seeing some Shakespeare, he was relieved to hear that I was actually going to see King Lear this very Saturday! And I was relieved to be going!
This wasn't just any old King Lear. Oh no. This was probably the best version of it that have ever seen. It had the fabulous Sir Derek Jacobi in the title role, the perfect antidote to Cbeebies - or so you would think!
I have seen and loved Sir Derek in many productions in the past including Richard III, Twelfth Night, Lear and Beckett but I have to confess that I couldn't help hearing him in my head saying "Iggle Piggle's not in bed" while he was proclaiming "I am a man more sinned against than sinning" as his chief role in my life at the moment is as the narrator of "In the Night Garden", the saviour of parents everywhere!
But I soon forgot about his other job and remembered that he is a GREAT classical actor - if not the greatest living one at the moment - as I became fully immersed in the plight of this arrogant, cruel yet tortured character.
I had also worried that having three hours sitting quietly in the dark was such a novelty that I may use it as a chance to drop off but when you are confronted by fine actors, skillfully producing a very moving rendition of what is ultimately a pretty harrowing play, the last thing I wanted to do was sleep! Not everyone's idea of a fun Saturday afternoon but my goodness, I needed it!
The play focuses on an old English king who suffers a reversal of his fortunes at the hands of his daughters after he divides up his kingdom amongst them.
What I really liked was the effect of the set which was just dappled white boards. There was no fussy furniture except for the odd stool, and props were at a minimum so your full attention was on the words and the acting. The play could create its own world through the words of Shakespeare and the performances of the actors.
There was no room for mistake or tedium and there was neither because Michael Grandage's production moves at quite a pace with no messing about and the performances are detailed and strong.
The production of course is driven by Jacobi's Lear who clearly shows the contadictions of the character while still managing to gain a certain sympathy from the audience. He is arrogant, self-indulgent and cruel but ends up broken and there's a real poignancy to his decline, his fear of madness is touching and his reunion with Cordelia, played by the wonderful Pippa Bennet-Warner) is tender.
While Jacobi is the natural centre of things, he is fully supported by an excellent cast. Gina McKee's Goneril is cold and calculating but somehow sensual while Justine Mitchell's Regan seems on the face of it to be a bit of a goody goody but at the same time is rather TOO excited by Gloucester's blinding.
Paul Jesson as Gloucester perfectly captures that irony of the man who really begins to see when he loses the use of his eyes and there's a touching sadness to Ron Cook's Fool.
Sadly the phrase "great tragedy" has been used often in these past weeks to mean something undeniably painful. I want to reclaim the phrase. This production is GREAT tragedy, which ironically is incredibly uplifting.
And one of the most uplifting things about this production is that actors of such magnitude are prepared to appear in the regions rather than stay holed up in the safety of the big smoke.
I got home just in time for Sir Derek to announce that everybody in the surreal and enchanting world of the Night Garden was now in bed - the man is a legend!