King Lear

William Shakespeare
Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company
Wyndham's Theatre

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Doug Colling as Edgar, Joseph Closka as Gloucester, Kenneth Branagh as Lear and Dylan Bader-Corbett as France Credit: Johan Persson
Eleanor da Rohan as Kent, Kenneth Branagh as Lear and Jessica Revell as Fool Credit: Johan Persson
Melanie-Joyce Bermudez s Reagan and Hughie O'Donnell as Cornwall Credit: Johan Persson
Keneth Branagh (centre) as Lear and the company Credit: Johan Persson

With adept editing and fast-paced playing, Kenneth Branagh’s production of King Lear delivers a performance that matches the “two hours traffic” which Shakespeare refers to elsewhere and presents a compact piece of storytelling, but in doing so loses some depth and detail.

He leads a company, cast gender-blind and drawn from students of his alma mater RADA, some very recent graduate among them, who deliver the text with clarity but sometimes with an unnatural emphasis on every word, giving little attention to the verse or pause for the thought behind it.

Jon Bausor’s design implies a cosmic relevance. The audience is faced with a disc pierced by a dark oculus on which the starry heavens are projected, and the action starts with it rising above the stage crossed by a moon or planet, an eclipse to identify a great occasion, before growling horns and thudding staves accompany ritual within an arc of stone slabs that now suggest a henge, later perhaps receding sea cliffs. Here is a neolithic king whose court honour him with a war dance before he makes the announcement they have been called to witness. It seems set up for epic drama, and slow revolves, a tilting stage, projections and a spectacular battle scene make it visually impressive, with stars or louring clouds overhead and spotlights through that eye-like oculus feel like a god’s finger. Performances aren’t on the same scale.

Evil though Shakespeare paints his villains, Lear’s elder daughters, the ungrateful sisters Goneril (Deborah Alli) and Regan (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez), and their lover Edmund don’t match the Game of Thrones demonic, in fact they could make it stronger. Corey Mylchreest could make much more of his Iago-like sharing of his wicked plans with the audience.

Branagh’s Lear is the dominant figure at the opening, no geriatric king and still the macho leader, but he is used to yes men and impulsively reacts to unfamiliar opposition with anger. He is behaving like a previously spoiled child who has been denied a sweetie, but there is also a hint (how I’m not sure) of an awareness of his own mental health long before his “Let me not be mad.” Is that why he has handed his kingdom over? It is a sustained but unremarkable performance until a sudden moment when he seems to lose his reason, and from then on he is genuinely moving.

The Duke of Gloucester (Joseph Kloska) and his son—bad Edmund and caring Edgar (Doug Colling)—form a family parallel to Lear and his daughters, another father rewarding the false child and rejecting the true one, but it is his blinding and blood-streaming eyes that will be remembered. It is a mark of how fast things are moving that he is still bloody as disguised Edgar takes him to Dover,

Cordelia, Lear’s rejected daughter, is doubled with Lear’s Fool (as some believe it was in Shakespeare’s time). Jessica Revell is a modest, restrained Cordelia but a very lively Fool who seems to have a real bond with her master. It is not easy for an actor to make their mark in a production that moves so quickly and is so boldly staged; not all succeed in doing so, but Revell manages it.

This is the shortest playing of King Lear that I have seen. Though it doesn’t explore its meaning (or find much of the humour that is also there), its brevity and its clear storyline could be a good introduction to the play, but be warned that there is no interval.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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