Jacobi’s Lear: a heartbreaking vision

Guest blogger, Angela Cartwright, writes…

Like many, no doubt, I find myself drawn to dramatic productions of King Lear. It’s not so much that I yearn for something new and fresh (after all, the text off the page in any interpretation is bound to entertain), but there’s always the possibility that this might occur. Not necessarily throughout an entire production but somewhere.

And in this regards, Sir Derek Jacobi’s performance as Lear in Michael Grandage’s 2010 production for the Donmar Warehouse did not disappoint. For me, there was one moment in particular that was simply unforgettable.

It’s all too familiar: the storm is heard brewing at the end of Act II and it then forms the backdrop for Act III. And it is usually such a dominating feature that it can be quite difficult to hear the speeches clearly above the cataclysmic racket. Certainly, I’ve seen many productions where Lear has personified the storm by shouting and blustering his way through the well-known speech: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”

But not this production and not Jacobi.

Instead, the sound of the storm fell away dramatically and the audience seemed entirely still as well as silent as the world of Lear assumed a hushed and altogether disturbing atmosphere. And only then did Jacobi begin. His delivery of this speech was absolutely spellbinding and also quite frightening. Rather than opting for an outward display of rage, Jacobi’s Lear quietly internalized the metaphoric storm and in this way offered a harrowing glimpse into the devastating effects of an ailing mind.
Never before had I been so confronted and affected by the pitiable spectacle of this king – this man – losing his 5 wits and much, much more besides. And as a consequence, tears – hitherto unbidden so early in the play – were called forth and shed, because of the rather surprising and overwhelming pathos generated by this heartbreaking vision.

I’ve wondered whether this interpretation — and perhaps also my response to it — was informed by the reality our aging society and its increasing demands on an ailing health system. There may well be something in that but, that being said, the truth of the matter is that the play itself accommodated this interpretation. And to my mind, the fact that this play could deliver something so seemingly modern and breathtakingly real — after so many centuries and countless productions — is more than enough proof of its brilliance.

Angela Cartwright