King Lear

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Globe
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

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Kathryn Hunter as King-Lear and Michelle Terry as the Fool Credit: Johan Persson
Diego Matamoros as Gloucester and Kwaku Mills as Edgar Credit: Johan Persson
Gabriel Akuwudike as Kent, Kathryn Hunter as King Lear, Michelle Terry as Lear's Fool and Kwaku Mills as Edgar Credit: Johan Persson

Fifteen minutes before I was initially due to review the Globe’s current King Lear, a steward walked along the queue informing us that a performer had collapsed causing the performance to be cancelled. Later we heard that Kathryn Hunter playing Lear had COVID.

On the afternoon of my second attempt to review the show, the cancellation notice for the day spoke of multiple actors contracting COVID.

Earlier difficulties with the production included a car accident several weeks before the first performance forcing the director Helena Kaut-Howson to withdraw from the show. It also meant the last crucial weeks of preparation depended on a good deal of self-direction.

Such a sequence may explain why this watchable three-hour-twenty-minute show lacks any central thread that explains the disintegration of all relationships in the play from the State to the individual families.

Kathryn Hunter as Lear makes a striking first appearance in a wheelchair playing a whistle and looking like an ageing ruler no longer capable of any sense of purpose. Yet when Lear speaks, his words seem considered, nothing is rushed, there are no melodramatic moods and this approach continues through a supposed period of madness and into those last moments of despair.

Michelle Terry lightens the mood as a physically lively, white-faced Fool, who gives an entertaining performance that includes her singing as she dances with a World War One soldier. Also effective is her import from Twelfth Night of Feste’s song "The rain, it raineth every day".

Other characters add their touches of humour. Ann Ogbomo as the stern Goneril suddenly sings "meow" and Ryan Donaldson as Edmund gets a regular laugh by pointing at members of the audience.

Michelle Terry is less persuasive as Cordelia, drifting into slight melodramatic sadness rather than giving us a more complicated picture of a stubborn woman of principle.

Gloucester (Diego Matamoros) is measured and convincing, but it is hard to fathom what activates the behaviour of his sons, Edgar (Kwaku Mills), who seems to overreact, and Edmund, who seems incredibly casual.

This clear production of King Lear is worth seeing, but it never soars or settles on any particular meaning to the horror we witness.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna