Kenneth Branagh’s King Lear succeeds in dressing a classic piece of theatre in a modern guise without losing its character. Many Lears have kept us on the edge of our seats over the years, each with their unique approach; Branagh’s take is sensitive, a slow decline into madness that threatens to break the viewer’s heart. He brings a balance to self-inflicted chaos in the ancient British realm, while everything Lear built falls apart around him and his people. In a time when everyone is their own neighbour, this piece about breaking family bonds has not lost its relevance.

King Lear throws the viewer straight into the deep end, strongly choreographed by Aletta Collins, Ancient Britain opens to us in the form of an impressive stone circle in which the old King’s court gathers. He wants to divide his empire among his three daughters to secure their future and to be able to withdraw from government affairs himself. But before they can reap the fruits of his life, he wants to know which one loves him the most. While the two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, flatter him with exuberant words, the youngest, Cordelia, is more reserved. More honest, maybe. She talks about love, yes. But also, about loyalty and a sense of duty, and that all of her feelings are present to exactly the extent they should be. Lear is beside himself that his dearest daughter does not seem to love him as much as he would like and promptly disinherits her. The tragedy begins. One of his most loyal vassals, Kent, appeals to the King’s conscience and becomes the second victim of his blind rage. With the banishment of Cordelia and Kent, the decline of the strong Kingdom begins as well as the physical and mental decline of the King. Now that he has given away his land, his remaining daughters are turning away from him and turning his men against him – it is this moment when he declares madness.

But that is not the only family dispute that plays a major role in King Lear. Another of the King’s closest companions, Gloucester, has a legitimate son as well, as a bastard. As tradition would have it, only the legitimate son can inherit land and title. But the second son is a devious schemer and soon betrayal, fraud, and disloyalty abound on all sides, which can only end in death (it is Shakespeare, after all). The turned and the turning work against each other, and alliances are forged, and broken before the land lies in pieces.

When I read that this production was performed for two hours without any interval, I was sceptical. King Lear is heavy material and can become lengthy at times. But Branagh and company make the time fly. The story is told without haste but has a steady forward drive, with a cast that is unparalleled in terms of strength. Branagh’s Lear is full of pathos, yet timely. His slow descent into madness is punctuated by phases of insight. It hurts to watch him. The decline from being a strong King to fragility is so nuanced that it is only noticeable when it’s too late. Always at his side is Jessica Revell as The Fool (and Cordelia). The chemistry between the two is just right, no light overshadows the other, it’s more like they are the oxygen that lights each other’s flames. An additional strong standout is Joseph Kloska’s Gloucester, played by his beloved son and betrayed by those he trusted most, he owns every minute of his stage time. The inner conflict coupled with doubts and regrets is palpable. Then there is Edmund, played by Corey Mylchreest who pleasantly surprised me, we all knew that he is ‘good with buttons’, but I wasn’t sure if he would also be ‘good with Shakespeare’. I hated Edmund, in a positive sense, his cunningness is a celebration. The transitions between the submissive son and the sneaky bastard are surprisingly fluid. 

King Lear at the Wyndham’s Theatre has everything a successful production needs. Jon Bausor’s costumes and set design provide the perfect setting for this piece – simple, yet with attention to detail. Branagh’s direction leaves room for the individual characters to develop without overlapping one another. 

A fantastic take on a new facet of a timeless classic.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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