King Lear

4 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars
(4user reviews)
Jonathan Pryce as King Lear, Almeida Theatre. Photo Credit Keith Pattison E.jpg
© Keith Pattison Jonathan Pryce (King Lear)

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.


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Average User Rating

4.5 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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Pryce stupendous. Great to see a properly, dramatically acted play, with time given to pauses. Even the convoluted fools lines were made understandable. Excellent direction. This was Shakespeare's vision fully realised. A pity The Globe could not match this quality, with Richard III garbled, dull and under-acted. Thank you Jonathan, glad to see a sell-out.

Sorry, but that is a very lame review. Here's my effort: The dour brick warehouse walls of the Almeida invite productions as solid to match their unforgiving quality. I found that Pryce's Lear, and his Geordie Fool, (Trevor Fox) delivered searing, thoughtful and emotionally profound performances in a very mixed cast. What is this fashion, these days, for uniformly casting rather underpowered, spindly men? The cast was, in the main, not up to Pryce's subtleties as a performer. Kent, (Ian Gelder) was strong, (if spindly, Kent should match Lear's dimensions), Goneril, (Zoe Waites) was wily and gesturally astute, her sisters were so-so and we need, surely, tangible venom from these women! Attenborough's disastrous decision to make Edmund, (Kieran Bew) a jeering, shallow Yorkshireman set against Gloucester's slightly irate courtier-father, (Clive Wood), left the subtext in tatters and worse, emasculated what should be Edmund's all too belated but heartfelt desire to return to grace by saving Cordelia, (decently played by Phoebe Fox). Gloucester was hopelessly under-powered: where was the shock at being made privy to Edgar's treason? Where was the shaking agony at having his eyes put out? His body and his hands moved not at all. Edmund's throwaway 'just-outtathepub-off-'ome' attitude to the bastardy that eviscerates him utterly eclipsed what should be his violently embittered need to revenge himself on father and brother. Edgar's Poor Tom, (Richard Goulding), was convincing but the brothers’ stilted sword-fight at the play’s close was like a waltz with swords used like Morris Mens’ batons: just a bit 'girly.' The lighting and thunderstorm were, at times, majestic but there were odd and, to my mind, unnecessary touches: the green plastic plant 'growing' from the floorboards just before the interval? The funniest - and most unnecessary touch of all - was the big fat soft toy look-what-I-won-at-fair-deer brought in and hung after the hunting scene, replete with fake-slit-throat-blood coming out but just for a second or two, (speaking even as a vegetarian that ruddy great animal would have provided the whole of West Riding with blood sausage): really silly and almost undermined Pryce's complex and at times, great, performance. Worth flocking to, though, even if there's only one of you.

Pryce was phenomenal. I shan't see a better version of Lear in my lifetime. Thank you Mr. Attenborough, the cast and rest of crew.

I will never be able to go see a King Lear again because it can only disappoint after this perforance. Amazing performance. Pryce was terrific.