A towering six-footer with the energy of a far younger man, 65-year old Jonathan Pryce looks like he was hewn from rock during the Neolithic era, with beetling eyebrows that probably have their own postcodes and a beard that conceivably harbours the world's last surviving population of archaeopteryxes. He's not the actor to call up if you like your King Lears maudlin, and he presents a powerful, Pan-like figure in Michael Attenborough's fine production.
Shakespeare's 'King Lear' is often painted as an exquisitely gruelling study in despair and decline, as we watch a once-potent monarch age before our eyes after disastrously dividing his kingdom between his scheming daughters. But the conventional interpretation often ignores the play's primordial weirdness, expertly brought out here.
After Pryce's Lear is cast out into the night by his elder daughters, accompanied only by his wise fool (a dignified Trevor Fox), he only seems to grow in strength, becoming wilder and madder as a titanic storm swallows them, taking on an almost supernatural aspect as his craggy visage is picked out by garish underlighting.
When the storm subsides, there is something strangely wholesome about his appearance: standing in dappled sunlight with a wreath of vines on his temple, gibbering nonsense, he looks far more at peace than he did when in power. And in the final scene, when he carries the body of his loyal daughter, Cordelia (Phoebe Fox), into the surviving remnant of his court, he isn't broken, but ablaze with an elemental wrath that burns up the stage. Madness suits this king better than politics did, Pryce suggests – the stranger his Lear becomes, the more potent he seems.
Inevitably, Pryce dominates, but it's a good cast: I particularly liked Clive Wood's level-headed loyalist, Gloucester, who remains sane and decent even after his gruelling blinding after betrayal by his scheming son, Edmund. And Richard Goulding takes Gloucester's other son, Edgar, on a clear, interesting journey from debauched fop to blood-covered loon, to cherubic avenger who slays Kieran Bew's Edmund in a thrilling climactic battle.
The production has problems, not least conceptually: Attenborough seems to hint at the start that Lear has abused his daughters and that their subsequent actions can be attributed to this. But it's a fascinating thought that simply disappears later on, leaving me wondering what all the uncomfortable business with Pryce snogging Jenny Jules's Regan and Zoe Waites's Goneril was. This is not the most moving 'Lear' you're ever going to see. And the strangeness of Pryce at his strangest and subtle magical realism of Tom Scutt's understated techno-medieval sets did make me wish that Attenborough and co had just gothic'd the hell out of things.
Maybe not a major revival, but a good, accessible 'Lear' – pacey, vital and beautifully spoken – and a very welcome return to the stage for Pryce and his eyebrows.