Written in 1606, King Lear is Shakespeare’s classic tale of the titular mad monarch. George Bernard Shaw wrote of the play ‘No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear’, and Nancy Meckler’s version gives some truth to this claim. A tale as old as time, Lear tells the story of a self-proclaimed ‘foolish fond old man’ (Kevin R McNally) and his daughters Goneril (Emily Bruni), Regan (Sirine Saba) and Cordelia (Anjana Vasan). When Cordelia, his youngest and favourite daughter, is unable to shower him with false affections like her scheming elder sisters, in a fit of rage he banishes her, breaking her heart in the process. What follows is Lear’s dramatic fall from grace – and into madness.
There is no theatrical experience in London, I believe, quite like the Globe. As the sun goes down, and the plot turns sour for Lear, the beautiful lighting design by Anna Watson creates the great storm of the third act, aiding the eerie atmosphere and heightening the thickening tension.
Loren O’Dair as the Fool is simultaneously unnerving and comforting, as she seems to become Lear’s confidant, advisor, and only friend. The relationship between the pair is sweet. Shakespeare’s use of the Fool as an ironic and symbolic writing device is incredible, and O’Dair’s succinct delivery of these lines, paired with McNally’s innocence and naivety as the aging Lear, truly highlights how simply clever Shakespeare’s writing is.
As we watch the alleged ‘fool’ spell out the King’s mistakes to him, we recognise how sharply funny Shakespeare was as a playwright, and how he grabs our attention by making the ‘painfully obvious’ painfully so, to everyone but those who need it. His sub-plot of yet another blindingly idiotic father Gloucester (Burt Caesar) and his sons, the immoral and plotting bastard Edmund (Ralph Davis) and the honest and gullible legitimate child Edgar (Joshua James), mirrors Lear’s, and adds another stroke of frustrating stupidity.
McNally is delightfully excellent as King Lear, and he evokes almost immediate sorrow for the old fool. Despite having only been on stage for a few minutes, his outburst of anger in which he spurns Cordelia feels out of character, and as the play progresses we see him grow tender and loving. McNally’s performance, above all, is just honest – and he is endearingly out-of-touch throughout. Vasan is graceful and doting as the abandoned Cordelia, full of love even in such circumstances, and his rejection of her and the looming consequences of doing so, brings an ache to the heart.
Classic Globe-isms like lilting multicoloured confetti, scattering across the stage when Lear takes off his hat, add an inimitable dream-like magic. This adaptation of King Lear is lengthy and meaty, and strikes a wonderful balance between modern and classic, funny and tragic, frivolous and sincere, but essentially, it breathes new life into such a wonderful piece of writing. Often in the shadow of more popular tragedies such as Macbeth, Hamlet or Othello, until yesterday, I had forgotten how good King Lear is. I will not forget again.
King Lear is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until October 14.