Review by Sam Waite
Like Laurence Olivier before him, Kenneth Branagh’s name is almost synonymous with the work of William Shakespeare – yes, he's done stellar work outside of the canon, as did Olivier, but his turns as The Bard’s protagonists are among his most celebrated. It seems only fitting, then, that he is both director and star of King Lear, in a new, strictly limited production at the Wyndham's Theatre before a planned New York run in the new year.
Lear is regarded by many as one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most difficult characters, a final proving ground for the most recent crop of Hamlets to cement their status. Trimmed for this run to an interval-free two hour affair, the play follows Lear as he descends into madness once tossed aside by his faux-doting daughters once he grants them power. His youngest daughter, disowned for her refusal to pander to him and falsify stronger, undying devotion, is proven to be the only one to have told him the truth.
To say Branagh is terrific in the role feels far too easy a statement to make – this is Sir Kenneth Branagh, for goodness sake! Jovial and almost boyish in scenes where the monarch aims for camaraderie but cutting and brutal where his mood shifts and loyalties are questioned, his Lear simultaneously proves himself more than the foolish old man his daughters take him for, and very much that foolish man who doesn't realise how rapidly age has reduced him in the eyes of others. Not dominating a stage he quite easily could, he also radiates generosity in his performance, sharing scenes rather than stealing them, and allowing his cast ample opportunities to shine.
Alas, not all of these opportunities are taken. The ensemble cast, young graduates of RADA including the professional debut of Chloe Fenwick-Brown, all have moments of greatness, but few capitalise on the chances their director hands them. Standout performances from a cruel, conniving Regan (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) and a genuinely funny and compelling Edmund (Corey Mylchreest) help to tip the balance, but at times it feels like Branagh simply dominating would have been more consistently entertaining. Fenwick-Brown, as Oswald, stands among those making the most of her stage time, making a strong first impression as an exciting new West End actor.
With the hierarchy and expected job roles having, according to researchers, being linked more to age than to gender, Branagh’s setting the story in the Neolithic period, several centuries BC, carries weight for King Lear. With the character's perceived ability and the disdain of children being the result of his age, this production’s primal nature and weighty physicality help to emphasise his growing weakness. In directing his actors within this setting, Branagh helps each to lean into the brutality of the combat and to add the requisite weight to words, though one has to wonder if their occasional reluctance to match his energy is rooted in his handling of their work.
Aletta Collins and Bret Yount, choreographer and fight director respectively, do marvellous work in bringing what would normally be swordplay into this world – staffs are used for both combat and to create striking visual and auditory moments, and a key scene involved a fluid, dance-like piece of movement from a murderous daughter. Likewise, Jon Bausor’s fur-trimmed, handmade-looking ensembles help to immerse us in the world of these characters – those of status have touches of fur as both statements and protection, while those without tend to be in a simple tunic or ratty hood.
More questionable, and likely a point of debate for many, is Bausor’s set design. A tilted disc hangs over the stage as the audience enter, shifting upright to become the sky itself once the show begins. Framing the wooden discus of a stage are slanted walls of rock, which shift around to suggest new locales in what is implied to be a predominantly-outdoor version of the story. The set and its movements, complete with smartly used revolve and raisable platform, are absolute marvels, but I doubt I'm alone in wondering if such bells and whistles were needed. Equally as striking but also just as unneeded is the projection design from Nina Dunn, which had close ups of the actors placed on the slabs either as an emotional backdrop, or to reinforce scenes of combat where the help frankly isn't needed and is perhaps even distracting.
A triumph for Sir Kenneth Branagh as a Shakesperean actor, this King Lear may not hold up among his strongest directorial efforts. Refreshingly bold in its willingness to experiment and to refocus the material for a modern audience, there is plenty to enjoy here, and the two hours never quite feel as long as you'd expect. Admittedly hard to fully embrace, this is still a largely well-performed version of a play that's reputation surely precedes it, and an opportunity to see a world-class interpreters take on one of classic theatre’s most coveted roles.
King Lear plays at Wyndham's Theatre until December 9th
For tickets and information visit https://www.wyndhamstheatre.co.uk/whats-on/king-lear
Photos by Johan Persson