King Lear at the Almeida Theatre is exactly the kind of play that makes one realise the futility of the starring system. In Oxford drama terms the production was comparable to the majority of Playhouse shows: half brilliant (usually due to fantastic lighting/set/some acting stars) and half disappointing (Dangerous Liasons, I’m looking at you). King Lear tells two interwoven stories: that of the illegitimate Edmund (Kieran Bew) who beautifully manipulates almost every other character while imploring the gods to “stand up for bastards”, and that of Lear’s fatal mistake and its consequences.
The part of the play that focuses upon Edmund, Edgar (Richard Goulding) and their father, the Earl of Gloucester (Clive Wood) is mesmerising. The relationship between the brothers is beautifully crafted and Edmund’s Machiavellian antics are remarkably acted – not merely in terms of the switch from doting son/brother/lover to egocentric antagonist, but also due to the credibility of the rest of the character’s misplaced trust.
Unfortunately the same cannot be applied to the other storyline. This half of the play hinges on an early scene whereby the aging king divides up his kingdom. His method of distributing his dynasty is by asking each daughter how much they love him, and rewarding them accordingly. This is a problematic scene that requires a great deal of investment from the audience and, alas, this production was unable to generate the necessary amount of realism. From the moment that Goneril (Zoe Waites), Regan (Jenny Jules) and Cordelia (Phoebe Fox) enter the stage in their strange woollen dresses (prompting a quick check of the programme to ensure the show wasn’t sponsored by Brora), they have lost us. Goneril and Regan’s perfomances improve throughout the play, but so much depends upon their initial declarations of love to their father appearing genuine – even for the smallest of moments, and they fall short of the mark. They are slimy and false: immediately denying us any sympathy for the king’s foolishness. Cordelia appears obstinate rather than pious. This insubstantial familial story is topped off by director Michael Attenborough’s interpretation of an incestuous undertone to the play; the lingering kisses between Lear and his children are the final nail in the coffin.
This shortfall, however, serves only to augment Gloucester’s tragedy, and Bew and Goulding are undoubtedly the stars of the show. Although Jonathan Pryce’s Lear is fantastic during the play’s non-familial elements, too much of the plot is starved by the shortcomings of the female characters.
It is impossible to review any production of King Lear without some discussion of the eyes, and this particular version has a gruesome gouging as the jewel in its crown of excellent special effects. The storms were another delight and the set itself was painted so realistically it was impossible to resist checking to see if it was really built of bricks (it was not).
Therefore to consign this production to a system of uniform starring seems unjust, but I will conform. Five stars to Wood, Goulding and Bew. Alas, only three stars overall.
*** (3 Stars)
King Lear plays at the Almeida Theatre until November 3rd, 2012, with special discounts for under 30s to Monday night performances and a post-show discussion on October 8th.