Last Updated on 1st November 2023
Paul T Davies reviews Kenneth Branagh in Shakespeare’s King Lear now playing for a limited season at Wyndham’s Theatre, London.
31 October 2023
Reduced to two hours traffic of the stage with no interval, the question isn’t so much, “How will Kenneth Branagh play Lear?”, but more, “What has he left out?” In Jon Bauser’s set, the stars look down, forming an eye that observes the mere mortals trying to escape their fate. As the play begins, the solar system moves, and we begin to head towards Earth. It’s hard not to think of Doctor Who, and, with moving stones, it’s 1978 and The Stones of Blood and as the ensemble chant and dance through their opening number, I half expect Tom Baker, my Doctor to emerge. But of course, it is Kenneth Branagh, and we are in Ancient Britain, the tribe splintering following Lear’s abdication.
Branagh’s abridged version goes like the clappers, gaining few advantages and many disadvantages, we are given little time to know Lear. The argument about 100 knights occurs before many West End musicals have finished their overture, and it means that Lear’s disintegration feels a little rushed, certainly in the first hour, with Branagh’s grandiose performance making it hard to see the man beneath the monarch. Things calm down after the storm, ironically, and there is power in his broken King. We head to Dover quickly, which gives Doug Collins’s excellent Edgar/Mad Tom an opportunity to move centre stage with Joseph Kloska’s equally superb Gloucester and provide a convincingly portrayed subplot that threatens to overtake the main feature. Vocally the cast are strong, the rhythm of the text pounds. Deborah Alli and Melanie- Joyce Bermudez have camp fun as Goneril and Regan, and Jessica Revell a tender and strong Cordelia and an impressive Fool.
With just the odd line about politicians and the mad leading the blind, there are only a few moments that land with contemporary society, this is not a production for our times, and it’s often too bombastic for the subtleties of the text, never taking time to breath and let the play speak for itself, it lacks depth. What it is not, however, is boring. It’s a mind engaging two hours, and while it may not reach the emotional heights of previous Lear’s, you will have more time to discuss it in the bar afterwards.