This is the final play at the Almeida directed by Jonathan Kent. He seems to have deliberately pulled together a team, both acting and backstag, with which he is very familiar. This is one of the strengths of this production.
Designer Paul Brown won various awards last year for his outstanding set for Platonov. There is a fair possibility that he will get almost as many for King Lear. The whole auditorium is surrounded by dark wood panelling and at the start of the play, we see what appears to be a room in a palace in the 1930s. By the end, Lear's disintegration is paralleled by that of the stage and, more surprisingly, the theatre space itself.
The initial impression is that Oliver Ford Davies' Lear, drawling like Michael Gambon, is being likened to another king that gave up his kingdom, Edward VIII. This impression is enhanced by the use of television screens around the auditorium which show the speech where he gives up his country. He is surrounded by men in three-piece suits and ladies in sumptuous, sexy evening dress.
Kent seems to have striven for a complete contrast between the good and the bad characters. Ford Davies, David Ryall as Gloucester and Tom Hollander as Edgar are all portrayed as pathetic but very sympathetic characters. The acting from each of these is very strong as they are beaten down and down by unjustifiably trusted relatives.
The wicked characters also make a great impression. In particular, the insincere sisters, Suzanne Burden as Goneril and Lizzie McInerney as Regan, are often evil personified. One slight issue is that on occasions, they, together with James Frain's Edmund, seem a little smug in a way they can appear melodramatic.
One of Jonathan Kent's strengths is that he creates remarkable dramatic images. When the theatre collapses and poor Lear appears on the blasted heath with his Fool, the audience is stunned. This is substantially due to the contrast between Palace and bleak heath and to Mark Henderson's eerie lighting. Similarly, as Gloucester is interrogated and tortured by a princess, Regan and her husband, the feeling of horror is intense.
The overall impression that most people will have after seeing this play is of incredible humanity. Oliver Ford Davies beautifully demonstrates Lear's suffering at the hands of his daughters and his descent into a very believable madness is painful to behold. This must then be contrasted with the evil that can occur within families where greed is to the fore.
There are many reasons for seeing this production. The acting particularly from Oliver Ford Davies and Tom Hollander is heart rending but touching, the direction is sharp and action constant, and once again the cost of a ticket is almost justified by Paul Brown's set alone.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher