King Lear

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Globe

Kevin R McNally as King Lear, Sirine Saba as Regan, Chris Nayak as Burgundy, Anjana Vasan as Cordelia, Buam Tihngang as France, Burt Caesar as Gloucester, Ralph Davis (above) as Edmund and Faz Singhateh as Corwall Credit: Marc Brenner
Kevin R McNally as King Lear and Burt Caesar as the Duke of Gloucester Credit: Marc Brenner
Loren O'Dare as The Fool Credit: Marc Brenner
Joshua James as Edgar Credit: Marc Brenner
Saskia Reeves as Kent Credit: Marc Brenner

Director Nancy Meckler has framed this King Lear, her first Globe production, as a performance by a band of refugees or homeless people.

Her designer Rossana Vize has hidden the theatre’s decorative scena in drapes and tarpaulins with KEEP OUT scrawled across its boarded entrance. The company kick their way in and take over then start to choose their casting. The dispossessed now play Shakespeare’s villains and their victims, abused, cast out and homeless.

It picks up on Lear’s reference to “poor naked wretches” with “houseless heads and unfed sides” but, having made this unsubtle connection, though it may produce an added empathy, Meckler does nothing further with it. Vagrant figures sometimes appear into the background of later scenes but they neither join nor comment on the action.

What does feel very contemporary is the way that Kevin T McNally plays Lear. Switching almost instantly from hot anger to mildness, there is a tiny hiatus of uncertainty, a feeling that this is a man used to authority and decision become confused in his thinking. Perhaps his decision to abdicate is not to be free of the weight of kingship, but because he fears loss of his faculties, has recognized the symptoms.

Is “Let me not be mad” already in his mind when he divides his kingdom between his daughters? This Lear is still physically strong but stress brings twinges of some painful affliction. His attitude to his daughters seems influenced by his past virility and a very limited view of women.

McNally’s is a strong performance and well spoken. Both he and Burt Caesar’s fine Gloucester play comfortably to the whole house. The production moves too fast to allow any wallowing in the verse but sense is clear. The parallels between the stories of these two old men are clear throughout as the play presents the demands of a new generation, and what it will do to get them, set against the love and loyalty of other children.

Ralph Davis’s Edmund gains sympathy at first as he, Iago-like, shares his plotting with the audience and Joshua James start off making Edgar a wimpish brother, later we learn otherwise, but Lear’s elder daughters Goneril (Emily Bruni) and Regan (Sinne Saba) seem duplicitous from the start. Cordelia, the youngest (Anjana Vasan), may talk logic but seems a just a little self-righteously priggish, though there is a touching moment when she is sent away and her father’s Fool bids her a fond farewell.

The fool is Loren O’Dair, gender-blind casting for, though her Pierrot like costume is androgynous, Lear still refers to her as “Boy”. Loyal courtier Kent becomes a gender swap. Saskia Reeves plays her as a female bureaucrat who on banishment puts on men’s clothes and an Estuary accent; it’s a clean-cut, intelligent portrayal.

Nancy Meckler puts more emphasis on plot than characterisation and brings out the many instances of humour. If the Globe audience finds a laugh even where one was not intended, this production can absorb that without losing its tension.

There is a degree of stylisation: a thunderstorm is literally drummed up and battles are lined-up confrontations driven by a battery of percussion, a duel wire exchanges blows at a distance but still builds excitement. Cage trucks are used to carry bodies, amorously entwined or dead. One is even used for Gloucester’s blinding by Faz Singhateh’s sadistic Cornwall, so hurried and compacted that it loses impact.

Though that scene plays down its melodrama too much, this is a production that delivers theatricality and entertainment. It offers less the downfall of a great tragic figure than a recognizable contemporary figure caught in the confusion of incipient dementia. It lacks great depth but doesn’t send you home depressed (for which you may be thankful) and there is a final parting gesture when McNally tears down the drape that covers one of the stage’s pillars revealing the bright colours of its painted marble.

Is this the beginning of post-Lear Britain being restored to health after the war between the sisters or a joking reference to the revelation of new values when regime change takes place at the Globe?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton