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Review: King Lear (Almeida Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

It feels only a few months since the last major production of King Lear graced the London stage… because it was, with Sir Kenneth Branagh’s abridged, self-directed Lear bowing at the tail end of 2023. In a double return, not only is Shakespeare’s tragedy back on stage, but is directed by Yaël Farber at the Almeida Theatre, where she directed multiple-Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan as Lady Macbeth in 2021. With her mark left by that Macbeth, Sir Ken’s Lear such a recent memory, and the stature of the role itself, this production undoubtedly opened with keen, sharply-assessing eyes focused upon it.

 

King Lear, a three-and-a-half-hour epic of a tragedy, follows many plot threads, each stemming from a quickly maddened king’s decision to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters and their prospective husbands. Cordelia, his youngest and most-beloved, pointedly refuses the declaration of love required of her to claim her share and is tossed aside as no longer his child. Meanwhile, her sisters have given glowing, cloying speeches earning them power and status beyond mere association with their mighty father. As the once-revered ruler falls progressively into madness, his heirs and other close subjects become increasingly duplicitous, risking outright war, and creating deep-set rivalries.



Farber’s production begins as a press conference, presenting the royal family as a political family and the king’s bequeathment of his kingdom as a public statement. The actors speak their lines into a microphone with conviction but without emotion, as if making a statement rather than declaring true feelings, before returning to their stiff poses and false smiles behind the grandstanding king. The evening gradually becomes less tethered by reality, or by the contemporary political conceit, but the costuming and deliveries do just enough to keep the idea in our minds. As things progress, the dreamlike and deliberately disjointed production feels dreamlike, and later outright nightmarish. Farber keeps the performances on edge, everyone ready to fight or (in the case of a deadly love triangle) to fall into bed with one another, a connective tissue that brushes aside any questions around time or place.

 

The first act clocks in at just shot of two hours, with the second coming in at a brisk hour and a quarter – it’s hard to say whether it’s a testament to the strong pacing of act one that they feel equal in length, or if the second act was simply a tad overwhelming in its scope. Farber’s control of pace and energy is commendable, but performative moments of movement and silent performance – though thrilling and utterly compelling – provide backup to anyone of the opinion that the piece could be cut just a bit shorter. It’s also worth noting that this may not be the best Shakespeare production for beginners to his work, with the dialogue thick and fast and the minimalist staging and emphasis on performances giving little to help novices follow the text – it doesn’t detract from the quality, but easing neophytes in is clear not the aim of this production.



The cast, entering and exiting through the aisles of the stalls and helping to encompass the auditorium in Merle Hensel’s deceptively simple set, are all strong in both physicality and acting ability. Fra Fee makes for a cunning and sensual Edmund, so convincing in his boyish charm that he fools the audience before bringing a real sense of menace to the surface. His two lovers, sisters Goneril and Regan, are played as powerful political adversaries by Akiya Henry and Faith Omole, each brining a sinister quality to their would-be queens. Third sister Cordelia, a glorious Gloria Obianyo, is carried with real grace and dignity, believably the strong-willed leader of an opposition, and making great use of limited time on stage. The ensemble, particularly Fee and Obianyo, also provide strong vocals for several sung interludes to establish tone.

 

While I could write ad nauseum about the entire company, the evening belonged rightfully to its titular role. Danny Sapani brings seemingly endless shades to one of Shakespeare’s most prolific roles, making the character at once strikingly familiar and entirely his own creation. His is a performance to talk about for years to come, managing to morph from composed politician, to raging warlord, to doting father, to deranged old man, all without creating a disconnect between scenes or between himself and his audience. Younger than one might expect a Lear to be, he brings enough gravitas and dramatic weight to the stage that this scarcely registers as a fact, much less a problem, and even begins to work in his favour when Sapani, barely into middle age, is reduced in his capacity because they think him too old to rule.



Alongside Sapani’s powerful, devastating King Lear, the remainder of his subjects all do fine work - in fact, hundreds more words could be dedicated to breathtaking turns from Clarke Peter's (Fool) and Matthew Tennyson (Edgar). Their wardrobes, designed by Camilla Dely, tell stories in and off themselves – the two elder sisters’ all-white ensembles are traded in for increasingly business-chic looks in beiges and greys; Lear himself is increasingly casual in his attire, until it is all but torn by his lost wanderings; modesty-dressed Edmund trades in full coverage for a tight vest and periods of near-nudity. Dely’s work blends the modern and classical elements and gives a sense of each character’s status and impact in any given scene. Around this, Hensel’s set begins with a dimly lit globe, representing how powerful these characters alternately are or feel, and soon has microphones, chairs, and an increasingly-haggard piano thrown about the space to create surprisingly convincing changes in scenery.

 

Peter Rice’s impressive soundscape, navigating seemingly unamplified voices alongside both hairline and handset mics, alongside live music, alongside the sounds of thunder and rain, helps to ground us in the nightmare that is Farber’s Lear. Despite the risks of microphone placements and of drowning out the text itself, Rice keeps everything in a strong, captivating balance. Lee Curran’s murky, perpetually muted lighting is also used to great effect – the opening press conference is as abrasively lit and lacking in a place to hide as one would expect, while shadow and distracting from those who are not the focal point keep the audience’s eyes from wandering after such a lengthy evening and bring to mind the cruelness and duplicity being carried out amongst this motley crew.



So much could be said in this production’s favour – a monologue from Goneril delivered as mid-coital panting? Inspired; a blinded Gloucester feeling his way to the stage, scaring audience members as he goes? Hilarious! – but there is still that part of me that wonders if the same utterly enrapturing night of theatre couldn’t have been just half an hour shorter, or if anyone seeing their first Lear may yearn for some help following the many threads at play. Gorgeous, occasionally gory, and mostly glorious, this King Lear rules over many others, and Danny Sapani may be the mightiest ruler we see for years to come.

 

King Lear plays at the Almeida Theatre until March 30th

 

For tickets and information visit https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/king-lear/

 

Photos by Marc Brenner

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