Sunday 3 July 2022

King Lear - Review

Shakespeare's Globe


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson

Kathryn Hunter and Michelle Terry

Returning to the title role after 25 years (and back then in a production also directed by Helena Kaut-Howson), Kathryn Hunter leads in King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe. That she is a woman in a man’s role, proves to be of little impediment to her delivery, and there is an authenticity to her take on the aged, dementia-raddled monarch that works well. The flaw in Hunter’s performance turns out to be not her sex, but rather her ability to master Shakespeare’s verse. Some of Lear’s words are amongst the most profound in the canon yet especially in the evening’s first half, Hunter races through her speeches offering two-dimensional deliveries too often rather than thoughtful interpretations of the prose. There is an Alf Garnett / Mel Brooks-like mania to her Lear that sees her play the role unnecessarily, inappropriately (and quite possibly, unintentionally) for laughs. And her howls at the death of Cordelia, surely one of the most gut-wrenching moments ever penned, lack pathos.  

Michelle Terry, the venue’s artistic director lands herself the curious casting combination of Cordelia and the Fool. To her credit, she makes a decent job of both, even if Kaut-Howson has decided the Fool’s departure from the story should be elevated to a moment of melodramatic death. Other than Lear’s penultimate lament that his “poor fool is hanged”, or reasons of economy, there is little to justify the fusion of these two roles into the same performer.

Some of the acting is fine and gripping. Ryan Donaldson as Edmund, Marianne Oldham’s Reagan and especially Diego Matamoros as Gloucester turn in fine performances. Matamoros in particular is deeply moving after his blinding. Elsewhere however there is under-performance and, too often, tedium. At 200 minutes including interval, weak performances make the narrative drag, and that's even without the addition of a great stage of fools as the entire cast rise from the dead to give an unnecessary post-finale display of country dancing.

Kaut-Howson was sadly caught up in a car accident that kept her away from the play’s final two weeks of rehearsals. Whether this absence contributed to the production’s lack of lustre one may never know, but this is not one of London's great King Lears.

Runs until 24th July
Photo credit: Johan Persson

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