Review: King Lear, Almeida Theatre

“This is the excellent foppery of the world” 

Considered one of the defining roles for actors, there never seems to be a lack of King Lears on our stages and in 2012, it is Jonathan Pryce’s turn to wear the crown in this Michael Attenborough production for the Almeida. Such is the potential for great quality at this North London theatre that when they get everything right, there’s a beautiful marriage between the epic and the intimate (as advertised) and this is largely what we get here.

Pryce’s Lear is a father first and foremost, and losing some of the distance that accompanies an overly regal bearing results in a rather effective focus on the emotions of the man rather than the monarch. Thus the rage, the tenderness, the regret, the pain that he feels – elucidated with some masterful re-readings of the text – is always accessible and persuasive. The look in his eye during ‘I know thee well enough…’ cuts to the very core; his bantering relationship with his Fool borne of a genuine connection between the pair, Trevor Fox’s native Geordie accent a perfect fit to the riddle-me-dees and sharp observations and really demanding full attention.

Zoe Waites and Jenny Jules as Goneril and Regan crackle with the stridency one expects, but their resentments are given a little more weight here with the suggestion that the abuse suffered from their father has been of a sexual nature too, the viciousness with which he rough-handles them even now a shocking sight. It is clear that this a family already riven apart and Phoebe Fox’s Cordelia brims with just as much belligerent spirit as her siblings, though dressed in steely grey as opposed to the maroons of her sisters and standing alone to one side as the kingdom is divided, there’s a palpable lack of goodwill all around. That Fox then softens so tenderly when reconciling with her father imbues this scene with a beautiful emotional cogency – a wonderfully dynamic take on a character not often granted this much personality.

Kieran Bew’s Edmund also shines with a thrillingly vibrant take on Edmund, the usurping ne’er-do-well who one cannot help but root for here as Bew invests him with a twinkle-eyed charm that is nigh-on impossible to resist. In his direct addresses, he toys and beguiles and seduces the audience (or maybe it was just me) with great skill and playfulness, so much so that one almost forgives his nefariousness. And I really enjoyed the depth of rounded feeling Richard Goulding brought to Edgar, especially when onstage with Clive Wood’s Gloucester. I might have perhaps liked a little more impact from Ian Gelder’s Kent though, an actor I greatly admire, but who felt a little lost in the background here.

Tom Scutt’s classic set blends in excellently with the bare brick of the Almeida and the costume fit the same mould of the largely traditional approach that Attenborough has taken here. But traditional shouldn’t be seen as a dirty word here, I mean it in its most positive sense. There’s no reinvention of the wheel, it has ‘come full circle’ after all, but the clarity of focus afforded by an uncomplicated approach creates a compelling piece of theatre, the power is which is magnified in the intimacy of the Almeida.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 3rd November

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