KING LEAR at Wyndham’s Theatre
“an approachable and nothing-to-fear Lear”
Kenneth Branagh acts in and directs this welcome West End Shakespearean production. Compressed into two hours and performed without an interval, this is an approachable and nothing-to-fear Lear. When on stage, Branagh leads from the front, always at the centre with an arc of supporting characters around him. The direction is sparse, a long succession of comings and goings between characters, often carrying letters to be delivered or discovered.
An extended opening scene before any dialogue is spoken places us in ancient Britain. A dramatic tribal dance (Aletta Collins Choreographer), a Pagan ceremony perhaps, with much thumping of staffs in which King Lear (Branagh) appears dressed in animal furs, his staff held high.
The set is a visual delight (Jon Bausor set and costume designer): A semi-circle of monoliths set to the rear that morph between representations of Neolithic standing stones and Dover’s white cliffs. Above the stage is a huge astral disc. Light and projection brilliantly lifts and lowers the mood (Paul Keogan Lighting Designer, Nina Dunn Projection Designer). Darkness is used to great effect, especially in the storm scene and to represent Gloucester’s blindness.
“Allowing the text to breathe, he gives every consonant its full importance”
It is a reliable-enough performance from Branagh, whilst we may question if he acts old enough or mad enough for the role. Above everything, his Shakespearean diction is exemplary. Allowing the text to breathe, he gives every consonant its full importance. This style may no longer be to everyone’s taste but it works well here and dually provides a working lesson to the supporting cast of RADA alumni around him.
There is little time to get to know the other characters. Goneril (Deborah Alli) and Regan (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) are both cold and spiteful with little to love in either of them. Jessica Revell brings out delightfully the loving and empathic side of wronged Cordelia but appears less comfortable in her double role as the zither-strumming Fool.
The half-brothers Edmund (Corey Mylchreest) and Edgar (Doug Colling) are admirably chalk and cheese. Edmund is rugged, hirsute, greasy and grimy but played by Mylchreest a little too close to pantomime villain at times. Edgar is the clean-shaven, boy-next-door. Colling provides the scene of the night as he guides his blinded father Gloucester (the excellent Joseph Kloska) in the guise of Poor Tom.
An exhilarating concluding battle scene (Bret Yount) is a mirror of the opening tribal dance but this time with a real fear of danger as the staffs are whirled as weapons.
Kenneth Branagh makes the stage his own in his final scene, cradling the body of Cordelia in his arms. As Lear’s last words stick in his throat, we witness an horrific, silent scream. Pure, perfect theatre.
KING LEAR at Wyndham’s Theatre
Reviewed on 28th October 2023
by Phillip Money
Photography by Johan Persson
Previously reviewed at this venue: