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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida


  Chook Sibtain, Jenny Jules, Jonathan Pryce, Zoe Waites and Richard Hope/ Ph: Keith Pattison

King Lear is unique in the canon in that there is no back story whatsoever, so it’s always a bit of a shock when productions, such as this otherwise perfectly straightforward one by Michael Attenborough, invent a pre-history.
Here, it’s a suggestion of sexual abuse between Lear and his daughters, who flinch when he kisses them firmly on the mouth or, in the case of Phoebe Fox’s no-nonsense Cordelia, turn into a steely and implacable opponent. There’s a new and unexpected tension running through the play, which sets off too many other anxieties in an audience.
At least you can see where Lear’s sterility curse is coming from, and in this way Jonathan Pryce, playing the role as a decidedly shifty old bruiser, adds an extra layer of unpleasantness to his tyrannical opening salvoes. I much preferred the resulting, unsentimental Pryce performance to that of Derek Jacobi at the Donmar Warehouse; this Lear’s a medieval monster who finds words only through the accident of forcing his feelings into the open.
So when he’s stripped of everything and shuffling around at Dover with Clive Owen’s monumentally grief-stricken, blinded Gloucester, he really does become a different person, flayed in his own tragedy, a displaced, homeless old amnesiac with a fluting voice (to replace the characteristic Pryce snarl of the earlier scenes) and a watery eye.
Indeed, Pryce, once a magnificently ferocious Royal Court Hamlet (who spoke the words of his dead father as if vomiting them up in a trance) and a spindly, wolfish RSC Macbeth, charts Lear’s progress from the remnants of paternal paedophilia to monolithic madness with, paradoxically, an overwhelming clarity.
Thus his ultimate crack-up is so much more affecting than usual. King Lear is always meant to be moving and quite often isn’t, for all sorts of reasons; Pryce’s Lear feels like a resolution of years of denial and inflexibility, a journey of inevitable renunciation and death that is genuinely, finally, one of absolution as well as dissolution.
For a play that Charles Lamb famously said was unstageable, the epic intimacy of the Almeida proves that it becomes even more theatrical, and more involving, up close and personal, as did Ian Holm’s Lear in the National’s Cottesloe, or David Warner’s in Chichester’s Minerva. And you can still do the storm and hovel scenes with full lighting and sound effects (both first-class by Jon Clark and Dan Jones in this version) without losing a word of “blow winds, and crack your cheeks” or the hair-raising hurricanes.
Tom Scutt’s all-brick design, using the theatre’s back wall, with several low arches and a surprise sprouting of weeds on the blasted heath, has a pleasing pagan neutrality without looking too cold, remote or stagey. There’s a Fool from Trevor Fox who for once (the Fool, not Fox) is genuinely funny and increasingly sad – he does the prophecy speech of Albion going to rack and ruin extremely well – and a spiritedly villainous Edmund by Kieran Bew.
Goneril and Regan are well contrasted beyond skin colour – one white, one black, as seems de rigeur these days – by Zoe Waites and Jenny Jules. But although Richard Goulding makes a fair stab at Edgar, the decent son of Gloucester who assumes madness in order to study it in others, he misses, as many modern Edgars do, the rawness and the emotional fireworks in a role that was always, traditionally at least, the second lead; the last great one I can recall is Ian McKellen’s.


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