Solving the puzzle of Jacobi’s King Lear

King Lear, Donmar Warehouse, 1 January 2011

Derek Jacobi’s performance of King Lear contained a trail of teasing indications as to the character’s inner life. The audience was given sufficient material to attempt a solution to a question posed in the play itself: “Alack, why does he so?”

In some productions the character of Lear is presented on a take it or leave it basis. He behaves in the way he does, and an audience is expected to acquiesce in the character’s actions as simple, spontaneous reactions to events without further speculation on what drives them at a deeper level.

This rendering of Lear, however, was an invitation to engage in some forensic psychology. And this engagement resulted in his character appearing ultimately more sympathetic.

Setting the scene

The set consisted of wooden planks roughly painted in white. They covered not only the floor, walls and ceiling of the stage but also the back of the auditorium and the front of the circle.

Decking out the entire space the same way might have been intended to create an atmosphere of inclusivity. But a theatre as intimate as the Donmar provides that closeness anyway. The two downstage walkways leading off the thrust stage also brought the action near to the audience as characters entered and exited along them. There was only one upstage entrance, on the right.

The simplicity of the stage was matched by the sparseness of the stage properties, which consisted of a map, a stool, a set of stocks and a chair.

Lear’s first words were revelatory: “Attend the lords of France and Burgundy” was spoken by a frustrated Lear as an impatient instruction. It was possible to sense immediately the tension in the man. With this Lear there was no real calm before the storm; the distant rumblings of what was to come could be heard right from the start.

After rolling the map of Britain out onto the floor, he paused as if struck by a sudden flash of inspiration. He then explained that he wanted his daughters to praise him. This showed him to be impulsive. Rather than having the entire occasion planned in advance, he was making up significant parts of it as he went along.

Having made a precipitate demand of his daughters, he then insisted on being kissed on the cheek by both Regan and Goneril before they launched into their expressions of devotion.

As well as being impatient, frustrated and impulsive, he was now shown to be needy. A picture of Lear’s inner life was created within a few dozen lines with great economy.

Cordelia stood downstage right apart from her sisters as they revealed themselves to be variously sly (Goneril) and gauche (Regan). When Cordelia’s turn came to speak, Lear kissed her unbidden thereby indicating her status as his favourite.

As Lear’s youngest explained why she had nothing to say in praise of her father, Kent (standing downstage left) laughed at Cordelia’s joke about Goneril and Regan swearing all their love to the father despite being married. This foreshadowed his imminent intervention in Cordelia’s defence.

Lear then blew his top as his impatience, frustration, impulsivity and unsatisfied neediness turned to anger.

Red wrath

Jacobi can do anger. His face changed colour and glowed red like a traffic light with sweat trickling down his forehead in a display of emotion that caused many spectators to be genuinely concerned for the actor.

At the height of his wrath, Lear stood sideways on to Cordelia but could not bring himself to look at her. However, in a moment of impetuous temper, he did approach her and snatched the coronet from her head, which he then presented to Cornwall and Albany as the coronet they were to share between them.

His fury continued unabated during the subsequent horse trading over Cordelia’s marriage. When Burgundy asked Lear to confirm his previous offer of a dowry, the king stood toe to toe with Cordelia and said “Noth…” inches from her face.

As Goneril and Regan had their chat at the end of the scene, Edmund entered upstage right, causing the sisters to go into a quiet huddle to continue their discussion. At the end they exited past him all smiles, as Edmund, a handsome bad-boy type, took centre stage for his soliloquy.

Gloucester paused before getting to the key sentence in the fake letter “If our father sleep till I waked him” as if reading it silently to take in its full significance. He then read it aloud as the most shocking part of the letter. Edgar was portrayed as neither bookish nor foppish, as is sometimes the case: he was quite unremarkable.

Offstage sound effects provided a noisy backdrop as Goneril and Oswald discussed the riotous behaviour of Lear and his followers. This generated sympathy for her position, as we could hear that her complaints were not exaggerated.

More insights into Lear’s character came when he was first seen together with his Fool. Played like a dour, disdainful Northern stand-up comedian, the Fool had a scruffy motley outfit, cap and face paint. Despite the Fool’s mockery, the interaction between them was the first in the play that Lear found rewarding. His initial pleading for the Fool to be present could be seen not as a demand for entertainment, but an attempt by Lear to re-establish a connection with his emotional lifeline.

Goneril was cold and calculating when confronting her father about his behaviour. She appeared to hide her true feelings behind a mask of calmness. Lear’s explosive retort about her being a “thankless child” was passionate but controlled. This meant that when he told Goneril that he could resume his kingly power over her (“I’ll resume the shape which thou dost think I have cast off for ever”) this seemed a real possibility.

Lifeline attached

More depth to the relationship between Lear and his Fool came in the next scene (1.5). Admitting for the first time that he had done Cordelia wrong, Lear made his plea not to turn mad taking the Fool’s hand and placing it over his abdomen. They exited together with the Fool’s hand still held in that position as if tending a wounded man. The Fool’s jocular parting couplet was cut so as not to undermine the pathos of the moment.

The spot Lear needed to be comforted would later be indicated as the seat of his “rising heart”. This physical support was a visual representation of the emotional support Lear received from his Fool.

Edmund fought with Edgar half-heartedly at the start of act two, and after cutting his own hand, pointed Gloucester in the opposite direction to that Edgar had taken when fleeing.

However, Edmund did fight convincingly in the next scene when coming between Kent and Oswald. Kent was placed in the stocks at the back of the set with his feet wide apart. The stage lights dimmed as Edgar entered and began to assume his disguise as Poor Tom. He smeared his face and hair with mud scooped from the crack between the stage boards and practised his mad voice saying “Poor Turlygod, poor Tom”.

On finding that Regan had put Kent in the stocks, Lear’s Hysteria passio came over him again.

The Fool sat next to Kent and adopted a similar feet apart stance to him, before pulling an invisible cord that drew his feet together.

A very significant clue about Lear’s inner life then appeared.

After returning from an unsuccessful attempt at speaking to Regan, Lear experienced another bout of his “rising heart”. But this discomfort did not last long as the Fool’s joke about eels in a pie seemed to sooth the king’s troubles. In an attempt to seek further solace from him, Lear moved closer to the Fool as if about to embrace him. But when he saw Regan enter, he instinctively drew away for fear that she might witness his dependency on the Fool’s support and the weakness that would imply.

We could now add vanity to the list of Lear’s character traits.

Regan was head-pattingly patronising towards her father. Unlike her sister Goneril, she was not clever or cunning enough to disguise her real thoughts. It was this, perhaps, which prompted Lear’s extremely sarcastic mock begging for “raiment, bed and food”.

The entry of Goneril downstage right and her taking Regan’s hand, set off another of Lear’s fits of anger. Jacobi again turned bright red.

Storm brewing

Act three saw the beginning of the storm, which was indicated by loud sound effects and the flashing of lights under and behind the set shining through the gaps between the boards. In the small space of the Donmar some mighty speakers, some behind the audience, were used to create a really loud and all-encompassing storm.

The dialogue in 3.1 between Kent and the Knight allowed us to see the storm in action with the sound and lighting effects used to the max. However, the entry of Lear and the Fool in 3.2 produced something of a surprise.

After a slightly awkward mimed struggle onto the stage, Lear was beset by the same storm that had assaulted Kent. But it fell silent as Lear began to speak. He was caught in spotlight and whispered his “Blow winds…” speech with his voice amplified to ensure it was clearly audible.

This was a good solution to the problem faced by noisy stagings of the storm: the sound effects often drown out what is some of the most potent language in the play.

The noise and flashing lights returned when the Fool spoke and then fell silent again when Lear resumed. This indicated that Lear was somehow in a separate, liminal world to everyone else: his internal mental torment expressed in his speeches was capable of blocking out the external tempest.

Starting from Lear’s third speech describing “this dreadful pudder” the storm effects continued over his words and he spoke normally. The hovel was indicated to be just offstage via the downstage left walkway.

The Fool’s prophecy was cut to maintain the fast pace of the production, which was marked by rapid scene changes with full use being made of the walkways to get actors on and off the stage quickly.

New best friend

After the brief scene showing Edmund’s betrayal of his father and the discovery by Lear and others of the hovel, we got our first glimpse of Edgar transformed properly into Poor Tom. He wore the customary loincloth and his hair and face were besmeared with mud.

Lear took an instant interest in him. The speed and intensity of his fascination was deliberately signalled to the audience by the way he sat next to Poor Tom.

Edgar’s first disguised encounter with Gloucester caused him to pause in shock, possibly out of fear of discovery. When Lear sat and talked with the “learned philosopher”, Edgar looked up to hear his father talking about him.

After a scene in which Edmund was wonderfully insincere and dishonest in betraying his father to Cornwall, the ceiling boards were lit up to suggest the interior of the outhouse where Gloucester had brought Lear and his group.

Lear was now so totally absorbed with Poor Tom that the Fool was telling jokes in a fruitless attempt to draw Lear’s attention back onto him. Given the intensity of the bond they had once enjoyed, Lear’s new-found fascination was upsetting to him. The Fool’s pitiful attempts at recovering Lear’s favour were touching.

The trial of Goneril and Regan saw some initial signs of Lear’s mind abstracting itself from reality. He leant down to talk to some imaginary little dogs, then opened and closed the invisible curtains of an imaginary bed before falling asleep on a blanket.

The interval came at the end of this scene 3.6.

Bring on the lychees

Goneril and Edmund’s departure was quickly followed by the capture of Gloucester and the disturbing sequence heralded by that chilling phrase “Bind fast his corky arms”.

The tension of the scene was enhanced by one of the servants holding back some of the others at sword’s point.

Regan plucked Gloucester’s beard while he was standing. In fact, he remained standing throughout his ordeal: he was not placed in a chair, but rather tied standing at the back at the stage. This made his comment “I am tied to the stake” literally true.

Cornwall’s vow to set his foot on Gloucester’s eyes was fulfilled when he plucked the first one out, slung it to the floor and then stamped on it. Cornwall and Regan hid Gloucester from the audience and under this cover the actors did some hasty face painting to simulate the injury.

The wounding of Cornwall by his servant and the stabbing of that servant by Regan were staged in one composite movement. Regan repeatedly drove the blade home in rhythm with her punchy line “A peasant stand up thus?”

Gloucester’s second eye was plucked and thrown against the back wall of the set by Cornwall, who only then began to show the effect of the wound he had received. It is possible that someone in such a situation might have a delayed reaction of that type.

When Gloucester appeared led by an old man at the start of act four, his shirt was covered in blood and he was sporting better wound make-up, having been backstage for a while. Poor Tom took over the job of escorting Gloucester, who followed his disguised son with his hand on his offspring’s shoulder.

In the next scene, Goneril began her seduction of Edmund by talking quite huskily. She unbuttoned her top talking of “a mistress’s command” and hung a chain around his neck. After inviting Edmund to decline his head and look at her chest, he took the hint and then the initiative by forcefully embracing and kissing her.

They separated and Goneril said that the kiss “would stretch thy spirits up into the air” with a gesture suggesting that his potency would satisfy her desires. This highlighting of the bawdy connotations of ‘spirit’ then set the following word ‘conceive’ into a similar context.

Her reference to “a woman’s services” became the tail-end of a series of erotic references and gestures.

The entry of Albany prompted her to turn away from him, do up her top and say “I have been worth the whistling”, which suggested that she did not think that her husband found her attractive. His subsequent words confirmed this.

The nutcracker

Her husband’s harshness was instantly punished as Goneril grabbed him by the nuts to deliver her “milk-livered man” rebuttal. Albany fought back by grasping Goneril’s hair and pulling her down. Once on the ground she spat out her “Marry, your manhood, mew!” as a parting shot.

Cordelia’s return to England and Regan’s jealous questioning of Oswald led us into the cliff top scene in which Gloucester attempted to end his life. Edgar crouched upstage left and muffled his voice in order to seem further away.

Lear entered using the downstage left walkway wearing a floral coronet and Jacobi treated us to an absolutely fantastic display of distracted behaviour. This was madness rather than senility. But nevertheless it seemed that Lear had not really lost his mind; he had merely relocated it to a happier place.

He drew an imaginary bow when acting out the drawing of a “clothier’s yard”; he toyed with and then stamped on his imaginary mouse; and he mimed arrows finding their target “I’the clout” with the whizzing noises indicated by “Hewgh!”.

Gloucester recognised the king, knelt before him, causing Lear to comment “see how the subject quakes”.

Lear acted out the various characteristics of “yon simp’ring dame” including the snow between her legs and her girdle, the area below which “is all the fiend’s”.

Lear’s gestures became even more obscene when talking of the dark sulphurous pit. He repeatedly tucked his hand into an imaginary orifice before leaning forward and pulling apart its entrance only to be repelled by the imagined stench. Gloucester’s request to kiss Lear’s hand understandably prompted him to wipe it first to rid it of the smell of mortality.

Not having registered that Gloucester was blind, Lear held his hands in front of the man’s eyes to represent the ‘challenge’ he wanted him to read. Lear also danced round Gloucester when talking about the judge and thief changing places.

As ever, the audience laughed to hear Lear talking of the “scurvy politician” who should get glass eyes, despite the fact that this is not a contemporary joke.

The king ended up on the ground when asking Gloucester to pull his boots off. He sat with Gloucester and played with his hair, prompting the comment “This is a good block” looking at the top of his head. Lear then padded around on his knees with his hands representing the horses shod with felt before pounding the ground forcefully shouting ‘Kill’ six times.

The king rose from the ground when Cordelia’s men came looking for him. He made them kneel before running off the downstage left walkway.

Reach out and touch

Another touching moment between the estranged Edgar and his father came when the young man used the word ‘father’ to him in the sense of ‘old man’. Gloucester must have sensed something about the way Poor Tom was behaving towards him, because he immediately reached out and felt his face. The gesture accompanied the line “Now, good sir, what are you?” This put Edgar under intolerable pressure to reveal his true identity, so his subsequent continuation of the deception was painfully wrought.

The entry of Oswald with his sword drawn made Edgar assume a slight accent, but nothing as strong as suggested by the text. After killing Oswald, he retrieved and read the letter he was carrying.

Cordelia chatted with Kent in 4.7 after which Lear was carried in on a chair, one of the few props to be used. Cordelia knelt in front of him as he awoke. Lear made it obvious that he had recognised Cordelia a short while before actually saying that he thought “this lady to be my child Cordelia”. He almost got out of his chair, but his daughter crouched lower than him.

Kent’s exchange with the Gentleman in which he comments “Report is changeable” on the rumour that he is in Germany, was cut.

Edmund and Regan got close at the start of 5.1 just as Goneril and Albany entered. Goneril was unnerved by this proximity. As Albany and Edmund went to leave off different downstage walkways, Goneril tried to follow Edmund downstage left, but Regan called her back. She acquiesced so that the two sisters both exited downstage right.

Edgar entered to deliver the crucial letter to Albany explaining the plot against him by his wife and Edmund.

Edmund’s soliloquy on his women troubles amused the audience greatly, but no one dared call out an answer to his repeated questions as to which he should choose.

Offstage sound effects replaced the march of Cordelia’s forces over the stage. Edgar laid Gloucester on the ground for the duration of the battle and escorted him away after Lear and Cordelia had been taken prisoner.

Bound together

The prisoners were brought in by the victors with their hands bound. Despite this, Lear was able to lock his hands with Cordelia’s for the touching speech about them being like two birds in a cage.

Edmund was quite cocky when explaining his disposal of Lear and Cordelia, but Albany made it plain that he was not going to stand for such impertinence. The jealous bickering over Edmund between the sisters began and Regan showed the first signs of being unwell.

The sequence ended with Albany’s brilliant confrontation of all three of them. Goneril’s ‘interlude’ comment was sarcastic but controlled. Regan fell properly sick and was carried off.

The Herald’s lines issuing the challenge to summon Edgar were spoken by Albany. Edgar’s defeat of Edmund prompted Goneril to kneel over her lover. Her husband then joined her and showed her the treacherous letter before presenting it to the dying Edmund. Goneril snatched at it, as indicated in the text. Albany restrained her by once again pulling on her hair.

Goneril’s defiant “Who can arraign me for it?” was slightly underplayed. She did not sound like a tyrant in the making. She grabbed Edmund’s dagger before running off upstage right.

Edgar told the story of Gloucester’s death and leant over Edmund to stress the final words in that speech, emphasising that their father’s heart had “burst… smilingly”. This forceful delivery was perhaps intended to explain Edmund’s sudden change of heart and conversion to goodness, marked by his statement that Edgar’s words had moved him.

Edgar’s long story about Kent was cut. The earl simply entered and was greeted with “the banished Kent”, words taken from Edgar’s reply in the text to Albany’s question as to the subject of his story.

Regan and Goneril’s bodies were not brought out onto the stage in order to save space. This created a final tableau focused on Lear and Cordelia.

Lear’s howl as he carried Cordelia in was not the low moan of a dying man, but a shriek that pierced the audience to the core. It was a kind of primal scream that seemed to express not only the pain of his favourite daughter’s death, but also all the tension generated by events up to that point.

Puzzle unravelled

The subtle hints about Lear’s character that had been peppered throughout the production, showing his flaws and weaknesses, meant that the sense of pity aroused here was intense.

This Lear was not an ogre brought low, but an ordinary mortal whose only distinguishing feature was that he had the power to make others suffer the consequences of his own inadequacies.

The king laid Cordelia on the ground and cradled her. Lear still seemed quite strong and healthy at this stage, making his remark about fighting with his “biting falchion” seem quite believable.

Kent looked at Cordelia when referring to one that Fortune hated. Lear picked up her limp arm and let it drop several times to show that she was dead. He had a button on his shirt for Kent to undo.

Kent sat behind Lear and cradled him as the king audibly gasped his last breath and expired. Those left alive lamented the dead pair and the stage lights dimmed. A standing ovation greeted the cast when the house lights went up shortly afterwards.


The enduring memory of this production was obviously Jacobi’s performance. It ran like a piece of precision engineering, and like all products of hard work it appeared to be essentially effortless.

The precise emotional payload of the final scene was in part the result of a directorial decision to accentuate Lear’s vulnerability.

The production is understandably sold out and I am looking forward to seeing the NT Live broadcast of it on 3 February.


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