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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

King Lear review – Kenneth Branagh’s fast and feverish tragedy

(from left): Kenneth Branagh, Jessica Revell and Doug Colling in King Lear.
An Ancient England … (from left): Kenneth Branagh, Jessica Revell and Doug Colling in King Lear. Photograph: Johan Persson

Kenneth Branagh has confirmed his mercurial ability to inhabit Shakespeare’s flawed heroes over decades on stage and film. We have come to expect great things: energy, polish and accomplished verse diction.

That is what we get here, in his production of what some believe to be the most tragic of Shakespearean downfalls. But although Branagh delivers his Lear with slick, almost playful efficiency, it is not his towering achievement.

Some of the dissonance is down to pace which, under Branagh’s direction, is as fast and feverish as Macbeth. So much takes place amid the shadows on Jon Bausor’s set design that it bears more than a few shades of that tragedy in its look, with silhouettes of birds and an ancient warrior king who does not wear a crown or ermine but has a dagger tucked in his belt.

Staged at a hurtling two hours with no interval, it is almost cinematic in its action-packed speed, which on stage appears like haste. Actors barrel from one scene to another with too few pauses. This divests the play of its deep, meditative qualities on the nature of being, ageing and questions of the soul.

Kenneth Branagh (centre) with the cast of King Lear.
Kenneth Branagh (centre) with the cast of King Lear. Photograph: Johan Persson

Branagh is a vital booming king, and a dangerously flailing creature as he loses his power. He flips from warm father at the start, sitting amicably downstage in wait for his daughters to flatter him, but shows a loud tyrant’s whimsy as he strips Cordelia (Jessica Revell) of her inheritance.

Branagh also gives him what appears to be a deliberate, impish madness, comic at times, rather like Hamlet’s antic disposition, until it tips over into genuine decline. Yet there is something that does not quite work, as he declares himself a “weak, and despis’d old man” in a voice that contains invulnerability.

Comedy rises in the role of Gloucester’s conniving son, Edmund (Corey Mylchreest), every bit the hammy evil villain, as is Cornwall (Hughie O’Donnell) when he gouges out Gloucester’s (Joseph Kloska) eyes with an evil chortle.

It is clear that Lear is king of an ancient England. The cast is dressed in animal skins and carry staffs, while a tribal beat of drums creates the tension in Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design – one of the production’s biggest strengths. Nina Dunn’s projections of planetary movement, ocean waves and tenebrous clouds are effectively imposed on to a backdrop of ramparts, which resemble Stonehenge-like slabs. But the closeups of eyes and faces which seem like filmic devices stapled on to the stage bring a hint of melodrama.

Mara Allen and Melanie-Joyce Bermudez in King Lear.
Mara Allen and Melanie-Joyce Bermudez in King Lear. Photograph: Johan Persson

The actors deliver their verse with great fluidity but Deborah Alli (Goneril) and Melanie-Joyce Bermudez (Regan) do not bring enough distinction while Cordelia is faceless, although it is an inspired move to have Revell double up as the Fool. There is a wonderful, childlike affinity between the Fool and Lear, which is one of the few relationships that really sparks.

As a production it is packed with action and deft in its fight scenes, but remains rather flat, and perhaps unwilling to plumb this play’s tragic depths.

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