3 stars out of 5
Kenneth Branagh’s King Lear has intelligence but lacks emotional depth
WYNDHAM’S THEATRE, LONDON
“You are old,” characters keep telling Kenneth Branagh’s King Lear — which feels a bit rough as, at 62, he makes for a pretty sprightly monarch. But this is a production that makes plain that age and frailty are matters of perception in a society that prizes youth, vigour and strength.
Branagh’s staging (he also directs) is set firmly in Neolithic times. In Jon Bausor’s design, a huge disc of sky hangs over the action, a black hole at its centre like a giant eye; the stage is surrounded by standing stones; the characters stride about in furs. It’s a setting that lends a primeval quality to the brutal family power struggles in Shakespeare’s tragedy. And the young ensemble (all Rada graduates) brings a restless, nervy energy to the narrative — an energy waiting to be harnessed by whoever will grab the reins of power.
All this is to the good and this could be a riveting reading. But in going for speed and clarity of diction, Branagh has lost much of the emotional depth and reach of this great play. The shape — the way “nothing” echoes through the drama; the way characters begin to see clearly even as they lose everything — becomes blurred. Actors deliver their roles without really inhabiting them and many of the key moments feel undernourished: Lear’s vicious cursing of Goneril; Edmund’s treacherous manipulation of his father; the king’s piteous rambling on the heath.
Most fatally, Lear’s reunion with his daughter Cordelia and his subsequent loss of her left me dry-eyed. The raw pain of these scenes can make you desolate, willing, along with Kent, for this broken man to be released from torment. Branagh’s performance throughout has intelligence and vitality, but he feels too much in control to release that pitiful anguish.
There are some lovely performances: Corey Mylchreest’s Edmund crackles with bitter rage; in contrast Doug Colling’s Edgar is movingly distressed at the sight of his blinded father. And there is real tenderness to the scenes between Branagh’s Lear and Jessica Revell’s Fool. But despite its strengths, this is a staging that crucially misses the pathos and scope of this harrowing, humane play.