I’m no authority on Helena Kaut-Howson’s 1997 production of ‘King Lear’, which starred the singular Kathryn Hunter as Shakespeare’s mad old king. But by all accounts it went down pretty well, playing the Young Vic, the Haymarket and an international tour. As a minimum it was surely better than this rambling and disorganised production that reunites play, director, star and designer Paweł Dobrzycki 25 years on.
These things are subjective, of course, but it’s never a great sign when the programme includes a note flagging up the fact that the director was indisposed for the last two weeks of rehearsals – you surely wouldn’t mention it if you didn’t think it affected the production.
This time, Hunter plays Lear as a creepy-looking imp with long white hair and an on-off relationship with a wheelchair. She is a brilliant and original actor, superb in the Almeida’s ‘The Chairs’ earlier this year. But I struggled to get a handle on her Lear: small, petulant and puckish, she gives him the air of an old gangster entering the outer fringes of senility. But it feels like a one-note performance - her sad little king feels interesting but perfunctory, steering well away from the operatic extremes of rage, madness and grief required to hold Shakespeare’s elemental ramble of a play together. When Lear goes ‘mad’, Hunter plays him much the same as before. I didn’t feel for him and I wasn’t sure if I was even meant to.
It doesn’t help that Hunter's natural inclination towards clowning overlaps somewhat with the show’s standout turn. Globe boss Michelle Terry is a wonderfully sardonic Fool, in full Joker face makeup, delivering her lines with sardonic menace – part deadpan standup, part ominous spirit, baiting the old king with portents of doom. It’s an excellent take on the role, and the most forceful performance of the night. (She also doubles up as Lear’s goody two shoes daughter Cordelia).
But this is the thing: Lear needs to be full of big turns to make sense of its fragmented narrative and huge cast of important secondary characters. That just doesn’t happen here. As Cordelia’s sisters, Ann Ogbomo’s Goneril and Marianne Oldham’s Regan are just blandly pleasant for much of the first half. If that’s actually what they were going for, then there is something to their apparently genuine exasperation at Lear’s boorish early antics. But their abrupt lurch into adulterous, eyeball-gouging murderesses just feels weird.
Ryan Donaldson’s Byronic, self-regarding Edmund is pretty good fun, but Kwaku Mills’s Edgar is all over the shop: even accepting he goes off the rails for a bit, there is absolutely no through thread to his personality or consistency to his performance.
‘Lear’ is not a play that just runs itself: it’s like a vintage automobile that needs to have every single part carefully tended to and looked after, at great expense. If you just let it flop out you’re left with an endless chain of subplots and no emotional payoff. You have to think Kaut-Howson’s absence explains a lot. But also it can surely only explain so much: I don’t believe this was just two weeks away from brilliance. Whatever magic was bottled in ‘97 has not been recaptured.