Almeida Theatre, London
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Attenborough
King Lear at the Almeida is a raw production, designed and costumed with a pre Christian simpleness of stone, flax and linen that serves the story well. Lear's pagan kingdom, rife with base human motives of bastardy, lechery, jealousy and greed, as well as deep love and loyalty is clearly depicted in this interpretation by Michael Attenborough.
At 65, Jonathan Pryce is realistically aged for the title role. At times majestic, his wild ( not entirely grey ) hair and luxurious beard combined with a partially exposed chest, suggest a man still in possession of many physical faculties. His is a rare Lear that still has the potential to make members of the audience swoon. The performance is pitiful too as we witness the fraying of the king's powers of reason with his age. "Oh let me not be mad " has rarely conveyed such power, coming from a man who whilst at that juncture of old age where his mind is becoming increasingly muddled and impaired, is young enough to still be painfully aware of his own decline.
Clive Wood’s Gloucester is as good as any. He easily suggests a man who enjoys life and who enjoyed begetting Edmund out of wedlock, yet is sufficiently naïve to be hoodwinked by his bastard son into believing Edgar's plot against him. Even more than Lear perhaps, this Gloucester is a man more sinned against than sinning. As Edmund, Kieran Bew possesses power, presence and evil will. He exudes the sexual attraction that sees both Goneril and Regan lust for him and up until his final swordfight he remains a plausible villain. Richard Goulding provides a thoughtful Edgar and in an interestingly creative touch, Attenborough has us introduced to the young man whilst he is whoring. A credible concept given his father’s track record and with a further degree of inventiveness provided by Edmund paying off the whore. This small detail by the director provides a slightly refreshing perspective on the two brothers, clearly demonstrating Edmunds perceptive and manipulative skills. Goulding’s Edgar goes on to be a moving performance, particularly after he encounters his blinded father, but he has more in the tank that can be given to this production and he needs to find it to truly win the sympathy and pathos that an exceptional Edgar can garner.
Attenborough has also had some creative fun with Regan and Goneril. During the opening scene in which the kingdom is divided, as Lear awards each sister their portion, he kisses these two older siblings fully and inappropriately on the mouth, clearly suggesting an abusive sexual relationship. This sexual connotation almost justifies the sisters’ subsequent cruel stance towards their father and provides another refreshing perspective on a critical aspect of the tale. Zoe Waites is a worthy Goneril, but no more than that. The moment when Lear curses her with sterility, is a point in the play that has the power to bring an audience to tears. Where a well acted king requires an "as strong" actress as his daughter, to flinch at her father's venomous words, Waite's response to this pivotal speech lacked emotional power. Jenny Jules’ Regan also needs greater depth. Attenborough could have and should have extracted more from both these women, they deserved it.
Chook Sibtain’s Cornwall was nasty throughout. He oozed contempt with word and action, blinding Gloucester in a scene that owed as much to Eli Roth’s “torture porn” as to classic writing. When he throws the ripped out eyeballs at his bleeding helpless victim, the audience flinch and rarely has Gloucester’s Tenant needed to have been as kindly as Alix Wilton Regan’s, her warmth almost soothing the crowd before they rush out for much needed interval G&Ts.
The Almeida stage is sparsely adorned for the production. Laid with heavy flagstones, a pre mediaeval time is clearly suggested. The production is generally lit well too, though there is an occasional incongruity with electric bulkhead lights flickering on external castle walls that sit at odds with the setting of the play, particluarly true with traditional flaming torches burning in the production.
Without doubt this is a King Lear that demands to be seen. Whilst Attenborough could have made the company more exciting around their star, Pryce remains one of the leading actors of his era. His performance as the ageing raging king is memorable, moving and will stay with one for a long time.
Runs until November 3 2012
Much anticipation surrounds each new production of both Hamlet and King Lear. Within an actor's professional life cycle, to play the Dane marks an accession to Shakespeare's great roles, whilst Lear is a role typically tackled in the twilight of a career. At 65, Jonathan Pryce plays the ageing king at perhaps the commencement of a twilight chapter with his performance presenting a more "youthful" take on the ageing monarch when compared to some of the other relatively recent Lears of Jacobi and McKellen. As a footnote and albeit long before blogging was invented, Hecuba was fortunate enough to see Pryce's astounding 1980 Hamlet at the Royal Court and it is pleasing to witness part of the revolve of this actor's Shakespearean career.