Review: King Lear, Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Photo: Johan Perrson

It feels like Kenneth Branagh has deliberately put his head above the parapet with his new production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Firstly, he has adapted the text himself, cutting a play that can run to four hours down to a swift two hours with no interval. Secondly, he’s both directing and starring in the title role. And, finally, Branagh has cast the company of his King Lear entirely of Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) graduates, most of whom graduated recently and some making their professional stage debut.

Each is understandable given Branagh’s status as the preeminent modern interpreter of Shakespeare, ‘heir to Laurence Olivier’, as well as the fact he is president of RADA, but many will already have made their minds up that this is an ego-piece before they have even entered the theatre.

When they do enter, audiences will find themselves in ancient Britain. Jon Bausor’s set and costume design makes that clear with the action taking place within a neolithic stone circle that deliberately recalls Stonehenge; the cast within the stones dressed in animal skins. There are no modern weapons here, even knives appear to be made of flint.

The dividing of Lear’s kingdom at the beginning feels like an ancient ritual amongst the holy stones with tribal yells and the choreographed pounding of staffs on the earth, heightened by Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design. But the stones shrink the stage so that it feels small, rather than intimate, while remaining miniatures themselves. A circular disk above the stage brings a heavy roof with the sky with its stars, clouds and birds bearing down on the cast. With a cut-out hole at its centre, is this the eye of the Gods?

The company of King Lear performing a scene
Photo: Johan Perrson

Bausor’s set borrows from the National Theatre’s 2014 production, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Simon Russell Beale. When Lear rages against the storm on the heath he climbs a rising platform that emerges from the stage as the storm booms around him – but again size feels the issue for Branagh’s production, alongside the sound design which doesn’t have the same impact as the National’s production. When Russell Beale climbed and bellowed at the storm it felt dangerous: Lear’s rage being met in equal fury by nature. Here it feels like Branagh is shouting into the wind.

The casting of recent RADA graduates does create something of a disbalance between the lead actor and the supporting cast and it feels like a strange decision – but the youthful cast do somewhat act as a foil to heighten Branagh’s own age – at 62 he is not quite the ‘four score or more’ years of Lear, not that actors ever are.

For the most part, though, the cast are solid – there are no chewing of lines here, the diction is sharp and delivered with poetic fluidity. Jessica Revell is a highlight in her dual role as Cordelia and the Fool and the tender relationship between both characters and Lear is touching, while Eleanor de Rohan is appropriately brash and stubborn as Kent.

Corey Mylchreest is also excellent as the scheming Edmund but he doesn’t quite get enough room to stretch within Branagh’s shortened text. The adaption of the text does have some clever touches, with the Fool’s death shrewdly shown as being from exposure in the storm.

Jessica Revell and Kenneth Branagh in King Lear
Photo: Johan Perrson

We can talk about text and the set and the supporting cast and everything else, but most of the audience are here for one thing and one thing only – Branagh, who is beyond excellent as the old king. He seems to physically age as the play progresses and Lear descends into madness.

You can see him mentally clutching for something to help ground him and steady his sense of reason, you see him struggle to found the words as his mind starts to fail him and the dual realisation that he has neither the words, nor the power, to do anything anyway as he proclaims in part anger and part despair,  “I will have such revenges on you both that all the world shall… I will do such things.”

There is levity too, this is a king with wit – you can feel the shadow of the younger Lear in those moments, the one that had so much love for his daughters. Most of all it is a joy to be in the room with someone with such mastery of the language.

But perhaps that is the downfall of the production, that we have come to expect so much of a Branagh Shakespeare production that we’ve become greedy – we want more. We know he can adapt it, cast it, direct it – he could probably have designed the neolithic stones to boot – but we want more of the acting. Because two hours of Branagh is spellbinding, why not four?

King Lear is at Wyndham’s Theatre, London until 9 December. It has recently added three weekday matinees.

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