Over a year ago I booked for the latest in a long line of theatrical Lears, this time with Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce, who has been a favourite of mine since my schooldays when the film Brazil was released. So I was intrigued to see how he would do in the greatest of all mature Shakespearian roles, and how Michael Attenborough’s production would present the story of betrayal, ageing, and intrigue.
In a sparse set with a trapdoor, a handful of entrances, and some magic dust in the form of the lightning storm which plagues Lear and his followers, all our attention is on the performers, and as the Almeida is a small space any audience member is in the thick of the action, which might be something to be aware of if you are squeamish in any way about fake blood and eye gouging!
As well as Pryce as lead name in the cast, his three daughters are played by Zoe Waites (Goneril), Jenny Jules (Regan), and Phoebe Fox (Cordelia). As Cordelia is a small role in comparison to her sisters, whether or not she is memorable is squarely on the shoulders of the actress playing her – and although Fox makes the early map scene vibrant with her spitting anger and contempt for her sisters, she becomes less interesting once she becomes the Queen of France. Waites is a terrific Goneril, a true serpent bitch, while Jules plays Regan as – to my eyes – a damaged daughter, perhaps abused in some way by her doting father? Because there is a definite hint of incestuous attraction here, which makes a viewer uncomfortable and takes away a bit of sympathy from our wronged king. If this line of plot is to be taken into account, this man deserves to have the doors closed upon him.
Edmund (Kieran Bew) is less successful at his characterisation than Edgar (Richard Goulding), while Clive Wood makes an excellent Earl of Gloucester. As the exiled, disguised Kent, Ian Gelder is good, but he doesn’t dispel memories long held of another Kent for the National Theatre, Ian McKellen (himself one of two superb Lears I have seen, the other being Tom Courtenay). The others in the cast are less important, and with a bit of doubling up all bases are covered.
So what of Jonathan Pryce’s Lear? His is one of frustration and black comedy rather than tragic dementia, although the ‘I believe this lady to be my child’ bit was moving, as was the sequence with the dead Cordelia. Scenes with the Fool were well done, and the opening map and banishing of Cordelia/Kent scene had all the might of majesty the role requires. So I wasn’t disappointed, and I recommend this production to Shakespeare beginners and aficianados alike.
(One word for the staff member in the circle, though – paying customers don’t want to hear creaky seats throughout, ok?).