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King Lear review: Kenneth Branagh’s play is a mad dash through tragedy, writes PATRICK MARMION


KING LEAR

Wyndham’s Theatre, London 

Rating:

As the former US President Abe Lincoln once wisely remarked, a man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.

Well, Sir Kenneth Branagh may not exactly be appearing in court, but by choosing to direct himself in the title role of what’s usually cited as Shakespeare’s most challenging play (which opened in the West End last night), he has certainly fitted himself with a figurative jester’s coxcomb.

Even though the text has been slashed from three hours-plus to a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am two hours (without interval), it’s clear early on that we’re in for a very long night.

By hacking back the Bard’s tale of an ancient Celtic monarch surrendering his kingdom to wicked daughters, he lays waste to the logic of chicanery and betrayals that lead Lear into madness and raging on a storm-blasted heath.

Set on what looks like Stonehenge, under a giant eye on which weather systems and the universe itself are projected, Branagh assails the play with manly fortitude. Not content with beating the boards portentously with a thick Neolithic stave, he sees to it that every actor strikes every letter and syllable of every word like a Rank cinema gong.

Sir Kenneth Branagh may not exactly be appearing in court, but by choosing to direct himself in the title role of what¿s usually cited as Shakespeare¿s most challenging play (which opened in the West End last night), he has certainly fitted himself with a figurative jester¿s coxcomb

Sir Kenneth Branagh may not exactly be appearing in court, but by choosing to direct himself in the title role of what’s usually cited as Shakespeare’s most challenging play (which opened in the West End last night), he has certainly fitted himself with a figurative jester’s coxcomb

Set on what looks like Stonehenge, under a giant eye on which weather systems and the universe itself are projected, Branagh assails the play with manly fortitude. Not content with beating the boards portentously with a thick Neolithic stave, he sees to it that every actor strikes every letter and syllable of every word like a Rank cinema gong

Set on what looks like Stonehenge, under a giant eye on which weather systems and the universe itself are projected, Branagh assails the play with manly fortitude. Not content with beating the boards portentously with a thick Neolithic stave, he sees to it that every actor strikes every letter and syllable of every word like a Rank cinema gong 

By hacking back the Bard¿s tale of an ancient Celtic monarch surrendering his kingdom to wicked daughters, he lays waste to the logic of chicanery and betrayals that lead Lear into madness and raging on a storm-blasted heath

By hacking back the Bard’s tale of an ancient Celtic monarch surrendering his kingdom to wicked daughters, he lays waste to the logic of chicanery and betrayals that lead Lear into madness and raging on a storm-blasted heath

It’s a performance of fearless virility, giving no clue as to why this hale and hearty monarch might want to retire.

While there are moments when Branagh seems to notice other actors on stage, his Lear appears to be trapped in his own private bubble. Exhibiting neither frailty nor vulnerability, he robs us of any basis for sympathy.

Without the guidance of an independent director, Lear’s wicked daughters Goneril and Regan (played by recent Rada graduates Deborah Alli and Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) are hung out to dry and turned into a bemused pair of self-serving sexpots. At one point, Branagh literally stands in the way of Jessica Revell as she struggles to untangle the painfully convoluted gags of Lear’s beloved Fool. But she’s also tasked with playing Lear’s good daughter Cordelia, in whom Branagh shows little interest.

Corey Mylchreest is at least hunky and impressively contemptuous as the mischievous bastard Edmund. But the most dignified turn is from Joseph Kloska, who finds bewilderment, intensity and pathos in Lear’s loyal supporter Gloucester – the man who loses his eyes for his trouble.

Clearly under instructions to get a move on, actors are frequently seen on stage for the next scene, before the last one is over. Not only confusing, by trying to fast-track the play’s epic emotional journey, the spectacle becomes ever more bizarre and uncomfortable to watch. Branagh has many great Shakespearean roles on his CV, from Hamlet to Macbeth, but this raving regent alas seems beyond our mortal Ken.



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