King Lear can seem like a one man show, everything instigated by the mistakes of the self-deposed monarch and the play’s success entirely hinging on the lead’s act. Not so with this production: although Jonathan Pryce is a compelling Lear, shifting between benevolence, irrational tyranny, joviality, madness, and desolation with all the sensitivity and skill one would hope from the eponymous hero, in the Almeida’s production he feels only one of many key figures. The cast and crew are talented, maintaining momentum and gripping our interest throughout. However, while they are especially adept at bringing out the piece’s comedy, the Almeida’s version does lack the emotional force and impact often associated with Lear productions.
By skimping on the cuts – the production runs at three hours – director Michael Attenborough focuses on creating a play constituted by recognisable relationships, rather than one invested with cosmic significance. Pair work is impressively well developed and these moments are when the production’s strengths really shine through. Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia (Phoebe Fox) was wonderfully poignant, the hesitations of both reminding us of their personal journeys. Pryce is at his best as a broken old man, whilst Fox brings a gumption and stubbornness to Cordelia that makes this final display of tenderness all the more touching.
Zoe Waites and Jenny Jules also work extremely well together, conveying a strong sense of Goneril and Regan’s relationship and how much it informs the plot’s progression. The way the two interact is all-important for, until Goneril’s physical presence reinforced Regan’s resolution, she seems to waver at her father’s entreaties of love. Pryce’s Lear and Trevor Fox’s Fool make a charming double act, with a relationship based on easy familiarity and shared laughs, whilst Ian Gelder’s fantastic Earl of Kent interacts nicely with both. And Gloucester (Clive Wood) and Edmund (Kieran Bew) open the play with a brilliant insight into their father-son relationship, the dismissiveness of the former matched by the dissatisfaction-turning deference of the latter.
The Edmund-Edgar pairing, however, was misjudged. I disliked the crude and dated use of accents to make a distinction between goodie and baddie. The northern-speaking Edmund (Bew) overtly grates against the cut glass tones of Edgar (Richard Goulding), defying credibility as well as political correctness. Furthermore, whilst draping ‘goodie’ Edgar with a prostitute was an interesting addition, the sense of the pair as unfairly typecast was undermined by Bew’s woefully uncharismatic Edmund. Iago-style, his soliloquies are meant to draw an audience into his iniquitous world, gaining their complicity in the same way that his forcefully engaging character charms the affections of both sisters. Although he gave a perfectly adequate performance, I was neither charmed nor convinced that he could.
Designer Tom Scutt came up trumps, producing a stunningly intimate set beautifully incorporated into the style of the lovely bricked Almeida. Instead of scenery or props, scene changes were indicated by the slamming and sliding of doors and gates, and with Jon Clark’s lighting design constantly working to transform the space. The unusual under-floor lighting that came through the grating worked well at times, but in the storm scene the blue tint and smoke suggested a magical and mystical Tempest, rather than the brutality that is needed to lend force to Goneril and Regan’s cruel act.
Dan Jones’ artful use of music and sound effects and solid fight choreography from Terry King added to this sense of an all-encompassing production. Special effects were generally employed well, the bloody spatter of a final flung eyeball providing the gruesome conclusion to the horrifying gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes. The play’s symbolism is predictable but not the less effective for it: to conclude the bleak first half on an uplifting note, a beam of light focuses on a plant growing up between the flagstones. This image is then extended into the second half, the flourish of stage greenery indicating that a resolution is nigh.
King Lear is playing at Almeida Theatre until Saturday 3 November. For more information and tickets please see the Almeida Theatre website.