King Lear (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company) ★★★

Kenneth Branagh plays the title role and directs this decidedly-different new production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear.

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.

All images by Johan Persson

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.

Perhaps it is the repercussions from the Trump era of politics that has made Lear so pertinent – whether reflected in contemporary milieu such as HBO’s Succession with Brian Cox’s Murdoch-esque Logan Roy setting his children in competition for his media kingdom or here, in an idiosyncratic Neolithic setting. The danger of having a ruler whose thin-skinned narcissism can brook nothing less than total adoration is writ large.
When Branagh’s King suggests he will divide his kingdom according to how much his three daughters will declare they love him, it speaks more of the caprice of his own vanity rather than any cogent political strategy. There is a conceited jocularity worthy of Boris Johnson in how he receives Goneril and Regan’s transactional effusive tributes. This King wants only good Press and sycophancy. When his youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to participate in a show of performative affection, Branagh’s mask of beneficence drops. When asked what she will say to get a more generous third of the kingdom that her sisters, her simple “Nothing, my lord” is an immediate challenge to his manipulative authority. Branagh’s “Mend your speech a little, Lest you may mar your fortunes” is riven with ill-disguised petulance. Her insistence on loving her father no more than “true” provokes a Trumpian volte face. In a vengeful whim, Cordelia whom Lear had just referred to as “our joy” is summarily rejected as his daughter and denounced as “our curse”.
The speed and the brutality with which Lear debases his own daughter resonates with the absolutism of contemporary political Populism. The rashness and viciousness enacted by the country’s erstwhile leader finds itself echoed in increasing barbarism throughout his land and peoples. The divided kingdom becomes ruptured with divisiveness and distrust. This production brilliantly conveys how porous the membrane is between orderly society and barbarism. The venom and frequency with which insults such as “glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue”, “whoreson zed” and “cullionly barbermonger” are quickly being traded, you’d think Shakespeare had anticipated Elon Musk’s X or this week’s Covid enquiry’s WhatsApp messages. The inevitable orgy of violence that Lear has unleashed culminating in the visceral blinding of Gloucester finds an easy modern comparison of Trump’s incendiary dismissal of democracy finding speedy escalation in the assault on the Capitol.

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.

The cast uniformly offer at least solid performances – with Corey Mylchreest, a charismatic standout as the deliciously scheming Edmund, and Jessica Revell finding richer seams as an agreeable Fool than her inchoate Cordelia. Frustratingly an ill-considered production decision stymies the supporting cast’s efforts. Lear usually weighs in at well over three hours, with productions over the four-hour mark not uncommon. This King Lear is a movie-length two hours with no interval. While the motivation is doubtlessly to create a fast-moving drama, this has profound adverse consequences. The pace is more reminiscent of that of Macbeth: a play essentially where a single event creates a domino effect which affects scene upon scene in a linear cascade. But such a telling does King Lear a disservice. This is a far more ruminative work. The cause and effect of his actions needs breathing space to slowly bleed through the King’s fracturing psyche as well as effect its damage upon his kingdom. Here, the velocity of events in such rapid succession begins to give the subplots the feeling of a checklist. An example: the sexual rivalry between Goneril and Regan for the attention of Edmund arrives with such unpreparedness, the scenes feel unintentional camp. The vastly-reduced runtime leaves the under-experienced supporting cast struggling to offer anything more than rudimentary character sketches.

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

King Lear Tickets

King Lear runs at the Wyndham's Theatre, London for 50 performances from 21st October 2023 before transferring to The Shed, New York in the Fall 2024

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