King Lear, Kenneth Branagh, 2023
Photo: Johan Persson
  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • Recommended


King Lear

3 out of 5 stars

Kenneth Branagh’s bracingly idiosyncratic take on Shakespeare’s tragedy relocates the action to prehistoric times

Andrzej Lukowski

Time Out says

Never afraid to plough his own furrow, stage and screen legend Kenneth Branagh has set his new, self-starring take on ‘King Lear’ in what I can only conclude to be the neolithic period. 

The advance publicity image for the show featured him in a smart coat with sensible hair, so it’s quite the surprise when Sir Ken strides on, dressed in furs, carrying a big stick, with his hair braided in warrior-like fashion. Behind him, Jon Bausor’s set is dominated by a gigantic eye-like aperture onto which scenes of wild skies are projected. Stones loom in the background. It is really quite something. 

Is it a good idea? 

Well, if we’re questioning the authenticity, it’s worth considering that Branagh’s production probably feels a lot closer to the England of circa 800 BC – when Shakespeare’s tragedy is nominally set – than the typical ‘Lear’. So that’s a justification of sorts, perhaps, although 800 BC was squarely in the Iron Age, and nobody here seems to have any iron.

There’s also little denying that our man looks good. You’d never believe he was 62, and while that might actually be a problem if he was your typical frail Lear, his interpretation of the role is as a powerful chieftain whose decision to give up his kingdom to his scheming daughters feels unusually reasonable. Lear’s division of his territory typically comes across as hubristic, at best. Here, everyone else is so cowed by his physical presence that his decision feels like more an act of delegation than abdication (plus what exactly is he giving up in a nomadic age?). His descent into ‘madness’ seems to be explicitly caused by a stroke that we see occur on stage – if it hadn’t happened, nobody would have dared try anything.

So Branagh is good, and his take on King Lear as a character essentially ‘works’.

Considering the production as a whole, though, and we hit slightly choppier waters.

For starters, Shakespeare wasn’t really writing about the Iron Age, and certainly not Neolithic times (which he presumably didn’t actually know existed). It was always deliberately full of anachronisms. Unsurprisingly, Branagh hasn’t actually hit on an interpretation that has anything much to say about prehistoric man – Lear’s wordy eloquence often feels like a particularly bizarre fit for a literal caveman.

If the setting has a purpose, it’s perhaps to explain why the rest of the company is so young (prehistoric life expectancy being what it was). The cast is made up of Rada graduates – Branagh’s alma mater, which he keenly supports. Although a few of them graduated a while ago, many are making their professional stage debuts and there are no ‘names’. It’s a generous gesture of Branagh to give so many youngsters West End debuts, and they all acquit themselves solidly. However, ‘Lear’ at this level tends to attract world-class supporting casts, who can give more to the play than Branagh’s ensemble do – more life experience, more idiosyncrasy, better comic timing, better verse speaking. 

It’s fine when Branagh is there to do the heavy lifting. But Lear himself becomes less of a presence later on, and the show sags when its star is off stage. At two hours it’s by far the quickest ‘Lear’ I’ve ever seen, but it’s not radically abridged so much as briskly staged – there is still of a lot of Lear-free subplot to be negotiated in the second half.

Whether or not the aesthetic deepens it, it really does look very nice indeed thanks to a crack creative team: there’s particularly excellent work from Bausor (responsible for costumes as well as sets) and projection designer Nina Dunn. And if the sticks are slightly comical, Bret Yount’s fight choreography is some of the best I’ve seen – long, complex sequences that have the meaty thrill of screen combat.

This ‘Lear’ is Branagh in a nutshell: he’s not really part of the British theatre scene anymore, but pretty much does his own thing. Nobody else would have brought a caveman ‘Lear’ filled with recent graduates to the West End, and there are upsides and downsides to that decision.  I suspect under somebody else’s direction, Branagh himself might have made a more moving Lear, in a more even production. But his idiosyncrasies are always fascinating, and he remains a great actor. 


£20-£225. Runs 2hr (no interval)
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