Thirty-two years after Jonathan Pryce presented rapt audiences with a radical interpretation of Hamlet – which, among other innovations, showed him being possessed by his father’s ghost – excitement about his forthcoming Lear was radioactive. Yet Michael Attenborough’s production demonstrates from the outset that anyone in search of conceptual flash will be disappointed. The audience is confronted instead with a piece that looks like King Lear for the age of austerity. The set is stripped back to the theatre’s bare bricks, and the cast is clad in dismayingly sensible wool and leather medieval attire. However, what becomes fascinating is the way this defiantly straight interpretation puts the focus on how the actors use the language and their bodies. It’s in this close and visceral reading of the text that the production’s power lies.
Right from the start it’s clear that Pryce’s Lear imposes his authority on his daughters physically as well as mentally. When Jenny Jules as Regan delivers her speech in praise of him he kisses her full on the mouth. Whether the sour tang of incest this evokes is meant to be a product of his madness, or is due to an even more disturbing long-term pattern to their relationship, is uncertain. Yet the way Regan and Goneril frequently clasp hands and stand together when confronting their father shows that under their serpent-toothed ingratitude lurks a genuine animal terror. This is compounded by the scene where he curses Zoe Waites’ Goneril with sterility, before grabbing her by the neck and delivering a kiss so violent and hateful it seems like a kind of rape.
One of Shakespeare’s many sources for Lear was Michel de Montaigne’s essay "On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children," a delightfully idiosyncratic intellectual ramble around points ranging from inheritance to the unpleasantness of watching breastfeeding. One constant theme is "how different [and often more pleasurable] is friendship from these civil ties."
The question of what binds one human being to another sings out loudly from this production – not least due to a potently humane performance from Clive Wood’s Earl of Gloucester and Trevor Fox’s wry and tender Fool. The mock-trial scene where Pryce’s initially whimsical Lear interrogates a joint-stool in place of the daughters who have betrayed him may bring Clint Eastwood’s unfortunate speech at the Republican Convention to mind. But it also demonstrates the extent to which Fox’s Fool lovingly protects Lear at the same time as he indulges him.
In the sub-plot involving Edmund’s rivalry with Edgar, Kieran Bew as the former brings out the percussive anger in Shakespeare’s language, "Why bastard? Wherefore base?" Yet he’s a little too crisp and pleased with himself to realise the full resonance of his role. And Phoebe Fox’s Cordelia, while impressively stoic, is perhaps too stiffly contained to allow us to feel the true pathos of her relationship with her father. Of the three sisters, it is Waites’ Goneril who truly allows us to sense the nightmare nihilism of the world that Lear inhabits.
As for Pryce himself, he manages to make us ask to what degree the madness is a retreat from emotional pain in a never less than imposing performance. But it’s a good embodiment of King Lear rather than a great one that takes you to the heart of the storm without feeling the flash of electricity.