thu 23/05/2019

King Lear, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

King Lear, Almeida Theatre

King Lear, Almeida Theatre

Jonathan Pryce heads a disturbingly dysfunctional family in a compelling production of Shakespeare's tragedy

In the name of the father: Jonathan Pryce as Lear with Phoeb Fox as CordeliaKeith Pattison

He arrives in a blaze of light and trumpets, but Jonathan Pryce’s King Lear seems as much charming, lovable father as imposing monarch as he sets about carving up his kingdom. What follows, though, brings a prickling sense of horror, as Michael Attenborough’s production lends a disturbing dimension to Shakespeare’s bleak tragedy. This is an account of an emotional despotism that has led to a hideous distortion of relationships; and Lear’s demand for absolute loyalty and devotion – his need to quantify love, and to receive proof of it – has damaged his elder daughters so profoundly that it costs them their humanity, and him his wits. It’s an interpretation that tests our sympathy, and yet Pryce handles it magnificently. He is perverse, abusive, devastatingly cruel; yet he is also tender, needy, foolishly funny and fatally confused.

White-haired and bearded, twinkly, but with the bearing of a once-fearsome monarch, Pryce bestows chunks of his kingdom, each accompanied by a coronet, as if he’s handing out Christmas gifts. By the time he reaches Phoebe Fox’s fine Cordelia, he’s enjoying his own generosity so much that he places the coronet on her head without waiting to hear her avowals of affection for him. When she refuses to gush, he is horribly wounded - and his blurted “I loved her most!” makes her sisters, Goneril and Regan, wince.

Jonathan Pryce, King LearBut if their later callous treatment of him seems grotesque, Attenborough throws in a deeply discomfiting suggestion as to its origins. Pryce delivers his curse on Zoe Waites’ Goneril with breathtaking venom; but, worse, snarling the lines “Thou shalt find/That I’ll resume the shape which thou dost think/I have cast off for ever”, he corners her and forces upon her mouth a violent and heavily sexual kiss. Later, he subjects Jenny Jules as Regan to a similarly incestuous embrace. Is this a symptom of his unravelling mind – or could he have abused his two daughters, sparing the baby of the family, his beloved Cordelia? That awful possibility hangs over the action like a toxic pall.

Tom Scutt’s designs give the action a setting that is vaguely medieval, yet recognisably modern. Industrial steel gates lead on to a castle courtyard; the costumes blend drapery in tapestry colours with fatigues and Barbour-style quilting – part courtly, part military, part country gentry.

The delivery of the text, too, has a fluidity, pace and rhythm that feels very contemporary. And the relationships are layered and played with vibrancy. Kieran Bew’s wily Northern Edmund presents a stark contrast to his half-brother Edgar, plummily played by Richard Goulding. From making his first appearance in an erotic clinch with a semi-clad servant, Goulding makes Edgar’s transition to the hunted Poor Tom and finally to maturity quietly compelling. The scene in which he leads his blinded father, Clive Wood’s Gloucester, to the edge of a imaginary Dover cliff is almost unbearably moving – though the notorious eye-gouging itself, while staged highly effectively, is stymied somewhat by Chook Sibtain’s wooden Cornwall. Trevor Fox as a lanky Geordie Fool is both genuinely funny and full of compassion, and Ian Gelder's stoic, good-hearted Kent also makes his mark. As for Fox’s Cordelia, she’s every inch her father’s daughter, imperiously furious at his childish tantrum in the opening scene, dignified, unyielding, almost Joan of Arc-like in her armour at the climax.

And Pryce, at the centre of the storm, is tremendous: a man who has undone himself, a ruler who has lost his grip, and a father who, in destroying his own family, has created his own desolation. It is in that realisation that madness lies; and it is an eviscerating image of dysfunction that has an insistent immediacy.

 

10 GREAT KING LEARS

Greg Hicks, RSC. Hicks occupies the part with brisk and inventive intensity.

Derek Jacobi, Donmar Warehouse. A thrilling chamber version, though even at 72 Jacobi still seems too spry

Glenda Jackson, Old Vic. Jackson returns to the stage as an authoritative Lear, gender irrelevant

Grigori Kozintsev, 1971 Russian film version. Truly apocalyptic masterpiece, stunningly performed

Tatsuya Nakadai, Kurosawa's Ran. Lear-inspired epic of the futility of war

Simon Russell Beale, National Theatre. Russell Beale's Lear budges up to make room for Mendes's vision

Barrie Rutter, Northern Broadsides. Jonathan Miller's vivid production puts Lear in a Yorkshire accent

Antony Sher, RSC. Sher runs the full delivery gamut in Gregory Doran's distinguished production

John Shrapnel, Tobacco Factory. A traditional Lear triumphs in the heat of Bristol's alchemical vessel

Aleh Sidorchik, Shakespeare's Globe. Belarus Free Theatre stages Lear as post-Soviet Oedipal X-Factor extravaganza

Could Lear have abused his two eldest daughters, sparing the baby of the family, his beloved Cordelia? That awful possibility hangs over the action like a toxic pall

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters