Derek Jacobi as King Lear, directed by Michael Grandage. The best I've ever seen.....

That we are come to this great stage of fools.

Derek Jacobi as King Lear (Photo Johan Persson)

Note: I’m republishing this 2010 review as the best of many Lears, a play I find difficult, not least for Lear’s two vicious daughters, but because it is on so many A level syllabi. 

I am the first to admit that King Lear, of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, is the one that fills me with little joy at the prospect of seeing it again. But here at London’s Donmar Warehouse with Michael Grandage at the helm and Derek Jacobi in the title role is a production to prove my misgivings not just unfounded but as foolish as the old man. This is the definitive Lear for my money, the one to which all others should aspire. Nothing annoys. Nothing grates. All builds a perfect and avoidable tragedy.

The space of course is the star at the Donmar, we are all close enough to be able to pick up on the slightest change in facial expression and, on this occasion, the walls and ceilings and stage boards, in fact every surface bar the upholstery, have been painted in white and grey and pale blue splodges of embracing but understated, abstract backdrop. It brings us into the very heart of the experience that Lear and the other players witness.

Michael Grandage is a great director and credit must go to him for this intelligent and balanced reading that allows Jacobi’s thespian majesty to shine. We see Jacobi red faced and apoplectic with the shortest fuse of an imperious and irrational old man. What is remarkable about this performance, despite the cantankerous nature of his early scenes, is the sympathy which Jacobi subsequently elicits rather than the reaction that he has brought it upon himself.

We also feel some sympathy for Goneril (played by the lovely Gina McKee) in providing hospitality for her father’s thoughtless retainers, although this is lost when we see her, snake-like acting as a playground bully. The scenes between Goneril and her father are moving when Lear rages at his eldest daughter and curses her in a truly terrible, vicious way. Like father, like daughter we think.

The relationship of Lear with the Fool (Ron Cook) is touching and as Lear says “Oh let me not be mad,” it is heartfelt. I still find the Poor Tom episodes difficult to stomach but Gwilym Lee as Edgar imbues the part with concern and without the director giving him any of the zanier portrayals.

Alec Newman contrasts as the other Gloucester brother Edmund, the counterfeit coin with none of the sympathy of Edgar. The storm scene has less standout emphasis here in terms of special effects although there are noises of thunder and strobe lights from behind the revealing and opening slits in the panelling of Christopher Oram’s set. Neil Austin’s lighting has a complex subtlety. Jacobi, with his eyes shut, almost whispers Lear’s storm speech in a truly haunting delivery.

Pippa Bennet-Warner is very well cast as Cordelia. She’s genuine and honest as the best of daughters despite her father’s cruel treatment and she speaks the verse beautifully. Excellent too is Paul Jesson’s loyal Gloucester whose blinding allows Justine Mitchell’s manically deranged Regan to show her hatred towards traitors. Of the smaller roles Amit Shah as Oswald, Goneril’s servant is interesting to watch for his expressive range.

Traditionally King Lear is a last play — in this case that’s the case for Artistic Director, Michael Grandage who announced his resignation from the Donmar Warehouse earlier this year.

This compelling Lear is life changing and unmissable. 

Production Notes

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage



Derek Jacobi

Gina McKee

Paul Jesson

Justine Mitchell

Pippa Bennett-Warner

Ron Cook



Michael Hadley

Alec Newman

Tom Beard

Gideon Turner

Stefano Braschi

Ashley Zhangazha

Gwilym Lee

Amit Shah

Ron Cook

Harry Attwell

Derek Hutchinson.


Director: Michael Grandage

Designer: Christopher Oram

Lighting Designer: Neil Austin

Composer and Sound Designer: Adam Cork

Fight Director: Terry King


Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval

Closed at the Donmar Warehouse on 5th February 2011


The Donmar Warehouse

Earlham Street

Covent Garden

London WC2H 9LX

Phone: 0844 871 7624


Tube: Covent Garden

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Donmar Warehouse  

on 8th December 2010