Thursday, 18 October 2012

King Lear at the Almeida

Lear: Magnificent
Michael Attenborough's production of King Lear at the Almeida takes place in something part-church, part-castle, but more complex than that: doors open and shut, revealing hidden recesses and secretive figures, suggesting an endless cycle of plotting and scheming.

The figures stride or scuttle about, dressed in robes and combat boots, moving through those endless layers of sight and blindness, truth and lies, towards ultimate chaos. What this version really brought out is the crucial role of Edgar. A lot of people, when reading Lear, are seduced by Edmund; here Edgar's quiet goodness and strength shone out. Richard Goulding first played him as a floppy-haired, good-natured lecher; his transformation into poor Tom was truly startling, his eventual role as avenger, caged in armour like some glistening insect, entirely powerful. The way he ended the play was masterful, too, adding a little pause, as if he was about to say something else, but was too overwhelmed to continue. There is no end to suffering.

The text was tightened up, and clever use was made of music and darkness to heighten dramatic tension. Jonathan Pryce's portrayal of Lear was subtle and intelligent: he twinkled like a kindly grandfather, capered about with his fool, lapsed into  sudden rages, making his descent into roaring madness entirely convincing. When he came, dressed in white, on stage in front of the body of his daughter Cordelia, it was as if the world had stopped.

Edmund (Kieran Bew) was a humorous, sexy villain, laughing at himself and everyone else, playing the two wicked sisters against each other. Cordelia (Phoebe Fox) was initially skittish and adolescent; she played the martial Queen of France well.

Lear is, to my mind, Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, full of madness, darkness and the awareness that everything is falling apart. There is no Fortinbras to take over, nothing to restore order, only Edgar's faint suggestion that the younger generation will not see the like. On that small stage, locked into the confines of that shifting world, we saw the blackness of the universe, and the small candles that light it.

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