“Nothing will come of nothing“.
Jon Bausor’s striking set of the new production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear is dominated by a massive overhead circle onto which evocative skyscapes, eclipses and waves are projected throughout. Less symbolic of the famous wooden O of the Globe playhouse, it is a constant reminder of Cordelia’s “Nothing” by which she refuses to participate in the required show of affection that her father demands. And indeed having a huge zero bearing down on proceedings, the set constantly underlines the nihilism at the core of King Lear.
While the set is a huge, eye-catching statement, it seems not entirely in keeping with the scale of Kenneth Branagh’s performance. Having worked his way up through the requisite ladder of Shakespearean leads – Henry V, Macbeth and Hamlet – he has arrived at Lear.
While Branagh’s acting prowess guilefully navigates the unpredictability and oscillations of Lear’s increasing mental and emotional instability, there’s something lacking in his interpretation. There’s no question he speaks verse beautifully – although given the Game of Thrones / Roger Eggers rough aesthetic of a sticks-and-pelts New Stone Age, there’s something incongruous about poetry being expressed so lyrically within that setting. There are undoubted moments of captivating magic in Branagh’s performance. An almost fourth-wall breaking “Get thee glass eyes; / And like a scurvy politician, seem / To see the things thou dost not” has a level of malice that takes your breathe away. The root of the problem though is that Branagh’s Lear never feels old or frail. Age, of course, is relative and arguably, surrounded by a noticeably young cast (many of whom are recent RADA graduates), he does feel generationally different. But the lack of vulnerability is what limits Branagh’s take. His Lear is vainglorious and petty. His hubristic fall does not have the scale to allow for an arc of redemptive sympathy.
Reservations aside, this is an unquestionably bold and original interpretation of King Lear. While his first take on the titular character may not quite live up to expectations, it is always a joy to see any stage performance from a mesmerising performer such as Branagh. Add in Jon Bausor’s awe-inspiring, atmospheric set, and you have a striking production worth seeing.
A production of Lear that may be more sinned against than sinning – ★★★ 3 stars