Donmar Warehouse presents “King Lear”, William Shakespeare’s play about a vain king who turns away his most beloved daughter Cordelia and is betrayed by his two eldest daughters as they make an attempt on his kingdom. All ends in tragedy as Mr Shakespeare so often commands.
Having received rave reviews in London, King Lear played by Sir Derek Jacobi, was arriving in New York City. Sir Derek has famously refused the role of King Lear for many years now claiming he was just not old enough to take on the part. For over a decade interviewers have interrogated Jacobi about when he will finally play Lear, since his 400 odd performances as Hamlet have set him apart as the actor for Shakespeare’s other colossus. Jacobi is now 72. He is 7 years off Lear’s textual age and now he feels ready. Not simply, he says, to look old enough, but to feel it. To understand the man. This king who will give up his kingdom to his daughters and spend most of the play going insane as they betray him.
But with this role comes huge responsibility and expectation. A veteran of the stage, Jacobi has made a career out of bringing to life Shakespeare’s greatest characters. In this role he has already been lauded, even before he treads the boards, as the greatest King Lear ever.
“I do get very nervous. Very nervous. And the pressures are much bigger now. There was a lovely actress called Dorothy Tutin and she always said that there were three categories of actor. The first one was “young and talented”, which is a great category to be in. You’ve got youth on your side, and you’re the rank outsider in the race. You’ve got everything to play for, nothing to lose. Then you become, if you’re lucky, “experienced and successful”. You’ve got work, you’re making a living, and you’re also getting wonderful experience. And then there’s the last one, which is “distinguished and acclaimed”. And that’s where the pressure is. Now you’re the favourite in the race, you have to win or come a good second. Now people are putting money on you to win.”
Unfortunately for him then as he suffers tremendously from stage fright. So much so he had to stop acting for a time when it became overwhelmingly acute. And you can imagine why with the pressure of being the greatest Lear of all time? Quite the burden.
Brought up by two devoted parents I could not attempt to report it better than The Guardian did last November in an interview with Jacobi:
His father left school at 13 and worked in a tobacconist’s in Chingford, and his mother at a draper’s in Leyton. But one of Jacobi’s other great strokes of luck was to have been born in the golden age of social mobility: he was able to launch himself into a career in drama after winning a place at the local grammar school, and a full state scholarship to Cambridge.
“It’s true. Those student tuition fees now…”
“Do you think you’d have still gone to university, if they’d be around then?”
“I would if the money was available. My parents worked all their lives and they would have bust a gut to help me out. They were amazingly supportive – because I went into a world they knew nothing about, and the little they did know was a bit scary.”
His parents do sound particularly doting. He was the adored only child – his birth was so difficult that his mother swore she wouldn’t have another. Born in 1938, he didn’t really see his father until the war was over. I read a story, I say, about how they gave you a car for your 21st…?
“They did! I tend to well up every time I hear that story. I’d come home from Cambridge for the weekend and Dad said, ‘Can you go to the shop and get me a paper?’ So I came back and he said, ‘Oh I’ve forgotten something, can you get me some cigarettes?’ So I went back, and they were both standing on the front doorstep. And I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And they said, ‘Didn’t you notice anything?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And they said, ‘A car? A red Ford Popular?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And they said, ‘Did you not see anything on the steering wheel?’ And there was this great silver key! I said, ‘How the hell have you managed to buy me a car?’ And my mum said, ‘Well we saved up ten bob a week since the day you were born.’ The slowest burn in the world. And they waited 21 years for the satisfaction that gave them. Just extraordinary. So, yes! I think they would have found the tuition fees!”
It is a remarkable story, and his eyes really have welled up. He stayed close to them throughout his life, finally losing his father when he was 90. For years, though, that was about as much as anyone knew about his private life. He’s never really put himself forward. He’s never done a chat show, or had much of a public persona, part of the reason perhaps he’s always been able to blend so seamlessly into his roles. He’s managed to have the kind of career that doesn’t seem to exist now: he really is famous for the work, not for himself. For years, he maintained that he lived alone in north London. Then just over five years ago, he went on record about his sexuality, that he’s gay, had been with the same partner for nearly 30 years – “someone from outside the business who remains nameless”, according to one interviewer.
My eyes fill up just reading this again. I was sat on the 5th row. I could see every flicker of expression and his uncontrollable raging at his two eldest daughters who had undermined their father in their pursuit of power. His emotion was so raw and his reverberating voice so intoxicating that in the end I could hardly bear the final scene as he carries his beloved daughter Cordelia onstage, hung dead. This fate entirely set in motion by his blindness to the truth. His mind is gone now. He has steadily gone mad as his wicked eldest girls Goneril and Regan plotted to remove his position once and for all. He literally howls as he is torn apart by the guilt of his vanity. Cordelia could not express her love for her father when he demanded it at the onset. He wanted unyielding flattery, something the other two could offer in abundance, but Cordelia loved her father unconditionally and chose to show her devotion without compliment.
“You have begot me, bred me, loved me.
I return those duties back as are right fit
Obey you, love you and most honour you.”
The play is far more complex than Lear choosing flattery over truth and being stung because of it. The simple, white washed walls that provide the backdrop to this tragedy aim to demonstrate pure goodness tainted by evil. And there is plenty of that. The brutal scene as Gloucester, a nobleman faithful to Lear, is violently blinded by Regan’s husband Cornwall and who then attempts to take his own life only to be saved by his banished legitimate son Edgar is one such moment. Edgar is posing as a beggar, “Poor Tom”, to avoid being punished for plotting to kill his father. A plot that was entirely fabricated by Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund in order to take the birthright, and perhaps the love, he so desperately craves. In true Shakespearian style, if you don’t read the synopsis (and more) before you sit down it can be a cruel 3 and a half hours of complicated plot. But I was prepared and so was able to absorb every move and every word Jacobi uttered. And soon I too was back in England on my way to Dover with Lear as the build up to the tragic climax rolled on.
This is the final scene and as Lear holds his daughter in his arms we see why this man was destined for the part. His career has been long and illustrious and he is absolutely exhausted tonight. He has given everything in this physically and emotionally tormenting play and I just have an urge to jump up and howl with him. As an aside Cordelia is the deadest creature I have ever seen. Her limp arms and heavy head are picked up and placed down by Lear and his aides repeatedly and she does not bat an eyelid. I even went home thinking I should practice such a feat. How could one appear so dead, so convincingly. This voiceless final performance nearly upstaged Jacobi. But not quite. He looked ravaged and old on the stage. Absolutely drained as he came to take his bow with his outstanding cast, including Gina McGee from Notting Hill as his evil daughter Goneril. The audience was on their feet (as is usual in these parts) but I had the distinct impression as I scanned the faces of my fellow theatre goers that this was sincere. Jacobi had earned this rousing applause and it was showing in his worn out expression.
I cannot urge you enough to see this performance. I may have just witnessed the greatest Lear of all time. And I am feeling very smug about it.