Dominic Dromgoole has launched the Globe's 2008 season in fine and highly appropriate style. After two years in the job, he has a good idea of what will appeal to his unique audiences and has striven for laughs and breakneck pace, characteristics not usually associated with this play.
The pacing might be an issue, especially with those who are not familiar with the play, since much of the early exposition is excised, which does few favours to some of the characterisation. In particular, we hardly see Jody McNee's pale Cordelia until after the interval, which makes it difficult to sympathise with her plight quite as much as is usually the case.
That apart, most other things about this staging feel absolutely right, the 3¼ hours seeming like far less. The costumes are of the period, while Jonathan Fensom has spruced up the set which stretches into the audience. This is particularly effective (and possibly startling for those closest) when a swashbuckling stage fight starts just above their heads.
Claire van Kampen's music, which unusually includes a solo balladeer, Pamela Hay, is a pleasure. Once again this comes from the Jacobean era and is played on traditional instruments featuring the tremendous efforts of Claire MacIntyre who entertains us with the lur, as well as the tricky and well-named long trumpet. Her triumphant night reaches its peak when she puffs into the most exotic musical piece of all, the carnyx, which looks like a small, old black dustbin on a long stick and must be nigh on impossible to play.
Dromgoole's psychological reading of the characters is greatly at odds with the norm but consistent and believable for a modern audience. He does not seem to believe in irrational insanity, seeing the behaviour of both the King and Edgar as plausible reactions to an implausible situations.
The excellent David Calder plays the King as a proud man who is used to obeisance and thus enjoys incredible but natural overconfidence. Rather than falling into madness as his kingdom dissolves, this King Lear appears to suffer a mental breakdown, as his brain denies the reality witnessed by his eyes when two unfaithful daughters bat him backwards and forwards like a regal ping-pong ball.
Equally fine is the performance of Trystan Gravelle as Edgar, a weak schoolboy in the early scenes when he is given the run-around by his illegitimate half brother Edmund (played by Daniel Hawksford) but far stronger after he is banished.
One wonders whether it is just coincidence that both of these actors playing sons of the Earl of Gloucester happen to be Wels,h or is this subtle casting? Later on, Edgar becomes poor Tom, providing succour first to the King and then his blinded father, interestingly played by Joseph Mydell as another weak man, more like Polonius than the traditional reading of the part.
For the most part, the bad characters in this play are portrayed as greedy and unfeeling rather than actually evil, although Peter Hamilton Dyer as Regan's husband the Duke of Cornwall bucks the trend, especially when he attacks old Gloucester. Kellie Bright's Regan also gets to weigh into the gore but on this occasion, is outshone by her elder sister Goneril, lucidly played by Sally Breton.
The ripples of shock amongst the groundlings at one of the most famous scenes in the whole of the Shakespearean canon show how many of them do not know the work. They will be the most appreciative of Dominic Dromgoole's attempts to humanise and spice up this tragedy.
His other main achievement is to ensure that the verse speaking is very clear, a trait more regularly associated with the RSC than this open-air theatre where contemporary actors have to compete with helicopters and aeroplanes and on this occasion win the battle.
The best of the comedy comes from two northern actors, Paul Copley playing Kent, the best protector that the King could have and the most honest; and Danny Lee Wynter, who makes a camp, skittering Fool entirely believable, showing skills as both a singer and dancer in addition to impeccable comic timing.
All in all, but for the rushed opening, this is what visitors to the Globe have a right to expect and really whets the appetite for a season that continues with The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Timon of Athens as well as new plays from Ché Walker and Glyn Maxwell.
This very accessible production comes highly recommended for anybody who has not yet been to this wonderful riverside theatre and finds Shakespeare forbidding and should also find favour with Globe regulars.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher