Sir Derek Jacobi ready to tackle role of King Lear
Michael Grandage director builds production around 72-year-old actor
‘You would never do Lear without an actor in mind,’ says Michael Grandage. The outgoing director of London’s Donmar Warehouse has had just such an actor in mind for several years. He has built his acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s great tragedy around Sir Derek Jacobi who, at the age of 72, feels he is ready to play the old king, a man who bequeaths his kingdom to his daughters only to be cast into the wilderness and surrender to madness.
The conversations between director and actor have gone on for seven years, each man preparing himself psychologically for a gargantuan undertaking. ‘At the odd dinner, at least once a year, he would usually say, “Have you thought about where our Britain is?”’ says Grandage. ‘It says he’s king of Britain in the play, so where is it?’
The answer is in some ancient, primitive time, an empty place of stripped-back timber and functional fashion. Here, in a deeply moving performance, Jacobi gathers his family round and says: ‘Tell me my daughters … which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ He treats the line as a whimsical afterthought, a casually conceived idea, yet his whole tragedy rests on it. When things don’t go his way, he digs in his heels, banishing the faithful Cordelia and irritating the scheming Goneril and Regan.
‘We want to present a Lear that concentrates on the domestic tragedy at the centre of it,’ says Grandage. ‘That’s what excited me and, it turned out, what excited him.’
To work with an actor of such charisma makes perfect sense. ‘He’s the highest ranking person on the stage and he needs to carry some kind of star quality,’ he says. ‘Put a crown on Joe Schmo and hope it has its effect; put on a crown on Derek Jacobi and something happens to the play.’
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Mon 7–Sat 12 March