Review: King Lear at the Almeida

Jonathan Pryce as King Lear and Phoebe Fox as Cordelia. Photo Keith Pattison

If you are a regular theatregoer, you quickly find out you are never too far away from a new Hamlet or King Lear. And as much as I initially resist buying a ticket, more often than not I succumb to the temptation of any new production. Jonathan Pryce as King Lear is an irresistible premise, and in that sense the Almeida production doesn’t disappoint.

In fact, Jonathan Pryce is extraordinary. I don’t have the knowledge or inclination to compare him with other King Lears, but the fact remains I found him incredibly moving, his Lear full of “rage against the dying of the light” and increasingly desperate that he exhausts himself out of his sanity. In Act 2, Scene 4, when Lear confronts Regan about the treatment of Kent, his rage was so infused in sorrow that I felt myself going cold. This is only the second time seeing Jonathan Pryce on stage (the first time was in the Donmar production of Dimetos a couple of years ago, and I didn’t like that play), and his immediacy and emotional power alone are reason enough to see this production.

Jonathan Pryce is matched by Clive Wood as Gloucester and Ian Gelder as Kent. Clive Wood, a big man and a very powerful presence, makes Gloucester a faithful and unwavering subject to the king, whose fate is all the more moving because his physicality is so imposing. Ian Gelder plays Kent as if he is of the same stock as Lear and he understands him in a way that he can’t understand himself. The three of them are at the centre of the best scenes in the production.

I was less happy with some of the younger members of the cast: Phoebe Fox as Cordelia was too self righeous and scornful to be really affecting, and Chook Sibtain as Cornwall was simply not enough.

While the set and costumes are serviceable and unobtrusive (lots of stone structures and leather sturdy material), they also make the kingdom seem poor and unattractive (not a problem unique to this production).The land King Lear rules often looks rough to the point of wondering why so many people would fight for the crown. The sound and lighting design are far more effective in creating a claustrophobic, often oppressive, mood.

This is my second Shakespeare directed by Michael Attenborough (the first was a very good Measure for Measure with Anna Maxwell Martin playing a blinder as Isabella), and in many ways, there are similarities: the production is crisp and clear, it services the play and allows the actors to shine. But also, I couldn’t feel the shattering excitement of a great theatre event.

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