Kenneth Branagh’s would-be bold reimagining of King Lear is a real disappointment at the Wyndham’s Theatre
“Men must endure”
If you already have an idea in your head of how Kenneth Branagh would perform his Lear, then it will come as little surprise to you that you are exactly right. Directing himself in the title role, his King Lear is old-fashioned to a tee (or classic if you’re feeling more generously inclined) – precise verse-speaking, bare chest-pounding, hammy howling perfectly modulated to reach the back of the Wyndham’s Theatre where he’s set up shop for 50 performances.
Where the surprise comes is in the production that he has surrounded himself with. Ruthlessly pruning the text down to two hours straight through with no interval potentially nods to contemporary West End audiences looking for something more cinematic in nature. But having the majority of his cast being recent graduates leaves them horribly stranded, too often this feels like a drama school production in which the drama teacher has cast himself in the main part.
The aesthetics don’t help. The choice to set the play in the tribal environs of an ancient England could have worked but the fur-heavy costumes and clunky sticks recall nothing so much as old-school Doctor Who (and not in a good way) and whilst the standing stones of Jon Bausor’s design possess innate atmosphere, the choice to have projected faces appear on them is cringingly bad, confusing the visual language of the production and feeling like a real misjudgement.
More experienced actors might have stood more of a chance in this heavily truncated version too. As it is, almost everyone has to deal with the stripping out of so much of the colour and characterisation as the production races from scene to scene, bodies noisily heaving to and fro but with little sense of purpose emerging from the work here. There’s a desperate lack of feeling from top to bottom: even Branagh himself is missing a true sense of frailty that perhaps an external director or even co-director could have brought to bear. At least it is over quickly.