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King Lear

  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
King Lear, Almeida, 2024
Photo: Marc BrennerDanny Sapani and Clarke Peters

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Danny Sapani is excellent as a toxic ruler washed clean by an unnatural storm in Yaël Farber’s exquisitely atmospheric production

As we found out to our cost last year, when Kenneth Branagh tried to bosh out a two-hour version, ‘King Lear’ is a play that resists being cut. It’s too long and too weird with too many characters to work in compacted form – as a minimum it gets lost in the lengthy section in which the eponymous monarch is off-stage being mad. You really need to be in it for the long haul with this thing.

Enter Yaël Farber. The South African director is by no means the first to rack up a three-and-a-half-hour ‘Lear’. But her superatmospheric, wilfully poised style is perfectly suited to it. She simply has no fast setting – not even a medium one – and her heightened, nightmare-like aesthetic rises to meet the strangeness in Shakespeare’s tragedy of insanity and old age.

If you’ve seen a Farber play before, you’ll recognise the hallmarks: the production takes place in a constant, doomy twilight, the night air chased by ominous violin drones and constantly filled with a light haze.

Her second play for the Almeida – after 2021’s excellent Saoirse Ronan-starring ‘Macbeth’ – starts off on a modern note, however. Danny Sapani’s bearish Lear is dressed in a blue suit by his three daughters, and then hosts a press conference in which he gives his kingdom away in a detached voice heavy on mic reverb. The scene hints at some greater context to his abdication – usually Lear seems to stand down so he can go on a massive bender – but whatever the case, after the King and his daughters Regan (Faith Omole) and Goneril (Akiya Henry) stick to scripted comments, youngest Cordelia (Gloria Obianyo) goes rogue and turns down her portion of the kingdom, prompting Lear to trash the conference in a vicious fury. 

‘The West Wing’ by way of a Sunn O))) gig

Sapani’s Lear has the air of a man who has never been told no, and expected this would continue after he stepped down. He treats his daughters coldly, like mere tools: even as they find their courage and turn against him, Regan and Goneril are clearly terrified of his anger. And yet we’re never allowed to forget they’re a family – the daughters get extra stage time to show how they weigh on their father’s mind, present in his thoughts no matter how little he thinks of them. And there’s a real sisterly chemistry between Omole and Henry in particular – even when they’re trying to kill each other, a concern radiates through.

From the near-naturalism of the press conference, things soon start to get distinctly more Farber-esque. And the move from natural to unnatural feels partially orchestrated by Clarke Peters’ fascinating Fool. Wiser and certainly older than how the part is usually played: he has a Merlin-like air to him, a mystic and manipulator who pulls the strings that lead to Lear’s mental decline – but also his rebirth as a gentler, better man. Perhaps he doesn’t summon the storm in which Lear loses his mind – but he knows it’s coming.

Farber’s stylistic approach finds its apotheosis during Lear’s exile, with Max Perryment’s slashing score, Merle Hensel’s ash-strewn set and Lee Curran crepuscular lighting creating the sense that the King and his party have stepped through the veil into some subterranean realm, separate from the reality that he was part of only minutes previously. Sapani is not a big flashy Lear but he is a fine one, who steps up to the text’s challenge: first a cold, vicious, toxic man; then a man who is seemingly purged by the unnatural storm, shedding his nastiness, but also much of his self.

Still, for all the alluring otherness Farber brings to bear, nothing makes her ‘Lear’ tick as much as simply giving it all room to breathe. To put this into perspective, Branagh’s version would have entirely fit into the first half of Farber’s. And yet hers feels like less of a chore. The various political subplots to do with Lear’s daughters, the villainous Edmund and his nice guy brother Edgar, the brutally mistreated Gloucester and more are just no fun if you try and whip through them to get back to the scenes with the king. Farber gives them all the room and respect they need. That’s not to say it’s actively slow, just that a character like, say the superb Fra Fee’s malign, charismatic Edmund is treated as equally interesting as the title guy. In this respect I can’t help but feel it’s aided by the fact Sapani is less famous than most major Lears (he’s probably less famous than Peters) - the production can be built with the knowledge the audience won’t be jonesing for the megastar they paid for to get back on stage. 

Don’t go making plans to do anything afterwards, but this is a gripping piece of entertainment. Farber has been guilty of going OTT in the past, but here she plays the tragedy’s mix of druidic weirdness, human tragedy and hard-nosed realpolitik perfectly – ‘The West Wing’ by way of a Sunn O))) gig.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£12.50-£65. Runs 3hr 45min
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