Jeremy Malies in the West End
3 November 2023
Still occasionally exhilarated by memories of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s perfect Macbeth for the Manchester International Festival ten years ago, I thought the two of us might age gracefully as I queued in Charing Cross Road for a play featuring a storm on the eve of Storm Ciarán. I expected this Lear to be intensely moving and another milestone for me. Well, what a falling off was there!
The cast with Joseph Kloska as Gloucester (foreground).
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
A version that is stripped down such that we can hurtle through it in two interval-less hours is bound to annoy those who see their favourite lines going for a burton. It would be a phenomenal adaptor who could get a play that often runs to four hours down to two without appearing to have performed a smash and grab raid on the printed versions. (First Quarto and First Folio have been used.) No dramaturge is mentioned in the programme, so I assume the editing is by Branagh who directs himself working alongside associate director Lucy Skilbeck. Few of the textual choices pleased me and many defied logic so making the version less accessible to a newcomer.
This is a play about a man with three daughters and another man with two sons. The plotline should be robust despite the Reader’s Digest treatment which places the action in Neolithic times or the New Stone Age. We see an abbreviated love contest but no division of the kingdom which surely would help curriculum audiences. I get it that we are in a pre-literate society but a rudimentary map on parchment or skin with Stonehenge and a few hillside chalk figures would have worked.
No two people in this rich cast of characters should speak in the same way. And yet voice coach Emma Woodvine fails to conjure up anything other than the formulaic broad West Country yokel accents adopted by Eleanor de Rohan as Kent (yes, casting is gender-blind) and Doug Colling as (Edgar) when they disguise themselves and must find another voice. I also wonder why Woodvine allows many of the cast to thump out the basic rhythm of iambic pentameter to the exclusion of any light and shade or similarity with the patterns of modern everyday speech. As France, Dylan Corbett-Bader squanders the sublime verdict on his fiancée Cordelia: “She is herself a dowry.” A line that often turns me moist and husky passes unnoticed here.
A few positives? The surprising amount of humour survives, with the biggest laugh reserved for Edmund (Corey Mylchreest) as he watches Lear’s family imploding and his bigamous plans collapsing. “I was contracted to them both …”
Sir Kenneth Branagh as King Lear.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.
It is great that the production follows what we think was original practice of the same actor (Jessica Revell here) playing both Fool and Cordelia. And this would add resonance to “And my poor fool is hang’d!” but I think the line was cut. Revell succeeds with both characters. As Fool, she captivates and mollifies Lear with her folk songs which have the effect of lullabies. Speaking directly to us, she exploits the special licence of the jester to magnify the theme of madness among her betters. As Cordelia, she suggests a backstory (not without love) that rules out any question of making extravagant declarations.
And Branagh? He may have focused too much on the group effort and not sought enough detail in his role, but surely Skilbeck could have helped him? The madness appears suddenly as though he has been poleaxed or struck by a migraine rather than creeping up. Few details are acquired gradually. And there is no sense of his pride being eroded as Goneril (Deborah Alli) and Regan (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) reduce his retinue of knights.
There is much mannered unsubtle acting with the supporting cast (made up of drama students and recent graduates as publicity material has stressed) over-telegraphing emotions with semaphore gestures and bashing of kendo staves on the ground. The group movement is often galumphing and becomes tiresome.
Even Branagh is prone to rolled ‘r’s and sawing of the air – at times descending to actor-laddie bluster – though he is impressively ruminative after the entry garlanded with wild flowers. Only here does he seem endowed with the noble anger hinted at in “O, reason not the need”. This is a Lear without enough changes in rhythm. Even if the scansion and line endings demand it, Branagh plods on in the same gear. There is no modulation across tetchy, genuinely scared, and feverish.
I should like to have seen Jon Bausor’s set give a more realistic representation of Kent in the stocks if only to underline the character’s stoicism. Bausor creates a hovel (a recess in the stage) on the heath, but the storm scene is so short that the characters do not really seek shelter. And I would have welcomed a few more hurricanoes in the sound design. Unusually for a present-day theatre and perhaps in the interests of speed, we are allowed to imagine the rain and that artistic choice is welcome.
Two aspects that caught my attention were lighting (Paul Keogan) and projection by Nina Dunn. These combine to suggest sun worship, and the upper part of the set (full of oval shapes) reflects Lear’s obsession with the firmament and eclipses. Keogan has many scenes at dawn or dusk with crimson radiating through Stonehenge, and Dunn gives us restrained video of the battle scenes with focus on faces rather than the combat. Keogan taking us into blackout as Gloucester (Joseph Kloska) stumbles towards Dover is crude but effective.
The fundamental dynamics of the relationships often misfire, and I could see nothing other than the plain narrative between Gloucester and Poor Tom at Dover. We should share the father’s terror on the cliff edge and his confusion as to exactly who his guardian is. And a basic indicator of my lack of engagement here: for the first time in my life I allowed myself to watch Gloucester’s blinding.
If ever the line “See better, Lear” were relevant it is for this hubristic production. It might be a piece of largesse towards developing actors but Branagh’s decision to direct himself is surely a mistake. Though determining at the start to be charitable, I can’t resist quoting from Tim Bano’s gushy programme essay: “If the part of King Lear is a mountain, then Kenneth Branagh’s production is a mountain range.” I’m sorry – this production does not rise above Base Camp and possibly does not even get its hiking boots on.