“King Lear” at Almeida Theatre

Neil Dowden in north London
19 February 2024

This second major London production of King Lear within a couple of months couldn’t be more different from the first. In the West End, Kenneth Branagh’s heavily cut, fast-paced King Lear set in ancient Britain lasted only two hours without a break. Yaël Farber’s modern-dress version at the Almeida Theatre – much the superior, with a towering performance from Danny Sapani at the centre – is about the same length before the interval and then another one and a half hours afterwards. Like her Macbeth at the same venue in 2021, it demands extended concentration from audiences but the rewards are considerable in a characteristically imaginative and inventive staging.


Akiya Henry, Danny Sapani and Faith Omole.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


The production is highly atmospheric if slightly overdone with Farber-style motifs of doomy lighting (Lee Curran) and almost non-stop soundtrack (sound Peter Rice, music Max Perryment) – with some actors involved in singing and onstage musicians sometimes included in the action. This can become a bit irritating, in particular the gratuitous use of two violinists in the storm scene, while there is often a droning sound in the background even when characters are speaking. Several contemporary songs are used for emotional effect with the show ending with a gospel-like rendition of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”.

Indeed, a piano is the main prop in an impressively fluid staging, with Edmund playing it to seduce Regan and later hitting off-key notes when dying, while (less successfully) it stands in for the Dover cliff that his father Gloucester jumps from as his half-brother Edgar keeps a close eye on him. Merle Hensel’s design also features a background metallic strip curtain that sways during the storm, while there is an outsized tyre surrounded by a circle of earth for the bleak scenes on the heath when Lear is homeless. An illuminated globe we see at the start when the abdicating king is dividing his kingdom is on fire at the end when the war is raging. In Farber’s vision Lear’s personal tragedy is mirrored by a world in turmoil.

The writing is on the wall in the opening scene. Lear’s devolving of territory to his three daughters – whereby he renounces his responsibilities but not his privileges of power – is staged with microphones as a pre-scripted, dressed-up media event which goes horribly wrong as the youngest Cordelia goes off-cue. While her elder sisters Goneril and Regan parrot insincere flatteries into the mikes, she says nothing publically – only turning to her father directly to speak unvarnished true words of filial devotion. Lear cannot take the public humiliation of his pride, throwing a tantrum and knocking down the microphone stands, while disinheriting Cordelia and banishing his faithful, blunt-spoken Kent who intervenes.


Danny Sapani and Gloria Obianyo.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


He may ultimately be “more sinn’d against than sinning” but here Lear is clearly shown to be the author of his own misfortunes. The riotous behaviour of his inflated retinue of hangers-on precipitates his falling-out with hostess Goneril, and his outrage at the disguised Kent’s being put in the stocks for attacking the servant Oswald leads to his calamitous break with Regan and her husband Cornwall. Early on we feel a surprising amount of sympathy for Goneril and Regan having to deal with an autocratic father – and similarly, in the sub-plot, for the “bastard” Edmund when as a returning backpacker he is greeted at court with embarrassment by his father Gloucester who makes him the subject of jibes from other courtiers.

But the cruelty of Lear’s casting out into the storm and especially Gloucester’s blinding – here enacted with visceral violence – changes all that. The earlier scenes of unnatural discord are counterpointed by very moving reconciliations between Lear and Cordelia, and Gloucester and Edgar (as well as a touching recognition between the mad Lear and blind Gloucester, united in suffering). But, interestingly, at the end Farber also shows Goneril and Regan – who have become murderous rivals for Edmund – clasped together, while Edgar cradles Edmund whom he has just fatally wounded as the latter belatedly tries to redeem himself. It’s a powerful account of fractured families in a world riven by conflict.

At the forefront, Sapani is superb in his portrait of a man who “hath ever but slenderly known himself” on a torturous journey of self-discovery. Some people thought that Branagh (in his early sixties but looking much more youthful) seemed a little young to play Lear, but Sapani is ten years younger and full of bullish energy. He has a strong physical presence on stage and exudes a forceful authority rather than bodily frailty, with an intimidating anger that erupts uncontrollably when he is crossed. But it is mentally that he is most vulnerable – “O let me not be mad” – as we see him flip from overweening arrogance to confused anguish. Speaking the verse magnificently, ranging from imperious to intimate, Sapani takes us with him – shedding his layers of clothing to seek essential truths – as he learns to look outside his own ego to empathize with other people’s suffering and value genuine love.

The most radical innovation in this production is the portrayal of the Fool as a sort of inner voice of Lear’s, who only interacts with the king telling him truths that he struggles to accept, and who disappears when Lear starts to become more self-aware – though he returns at the end after Lear’s death to speak some of the epilogue. Gliding around the stage like a ghost, Clarke Peters wonderfully suggest the Fool’s droll sagacity – this is not the traditional court jester using the most of his licence, but a gentle, melancholy spirit (unusually older than Lear) who seems to be able to look way back into the past as well as see into the future of humanity.

Gloria Obianyo is also a forthright truth-teller as Cordelia, far from the passive victim she has sometimes been depicted as, who carries a machine gun with the invading army from France and who resembles her father in stubborn defiance. Akiya Henry as Goneril and Faith Omole as Regan both impress as the power-hungry alpha females whose sisterhood later changes to jealousy after they indulge in erotic couplings with their protégé Edmund, played as a quick-thinking opportunist who gets off on extreme risk-taking by Fra Fee. There are also strong performances from Michael Gould as a well-meaning but credulous Gloucester who pays a heavy price for his former infelicities, Matthew Tennyson as a naïve Edgar who goes into survival mode as “Poor Tom”, and Alec Newman as a staunch but truculent Kent who beats up Oswald (an amusingly sneery Hugo Bolton) though he is in his own way equally loyal.