King Lear: Making the complicated, confounding.
“How far your eyes may pierce I cannot tell.
Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well “
King Lear is one of those plays that’s often talked about in electrified tones. One of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, it is considered one of his most difficult to stage yet offers so much to cast and audience that it’s often performed and always garners attention.
In truth, its difficulty as a play is that the overall story is a mind-achingly convoluted collection of plots and sub-plots that continually fight for one’s attention.
This new production, at the open-air Shakespeare’s Globe, is much anticipated as Kathryn Hunter reprises her 1997 role King Lear (yes, ‘she’ plays ‘he’) with Helena Kaut-Howson retaining directing duties. At the time a female director and a female protagonist captured the headlines of the show. Now, some 25 years later, whilst there’s little surprise around Kaut-Howson directing, there’s still a palpable frisson of anticipation around Hunter playing the King again.
This gender surprise aside, the production is fairly straightforward. It’s probable akin to something that could have been staged at the original Globe. Apart from some modern-day lighting and dry ice, there’s little stage setting. Chairs and tables suffice as props, a curtain rise and fall or a move to stage left or right helps shift location and the rest is left to our imagination.
The traditional wooden stage area is given a bit of a makeover to make it look like rusting iron, suggesting that we’re moving this Lear to a more modern setting. Unfortunately, though, no one seemed to have relayed that to the costume department, whose onstage wardrobe runs, for no obvious reason, from Elizabethan court-dresses for Lear’s daughters, Goneril (Ann Ogbomo) and Regan (Marianne Oldham) to jeans and t-shirt for Edgar (Kwaku Mills).
There’s significant anticipation around Hunter’s interpretation of the King, and she doesn’t disappoint. You’d be hard pushed to state that this wasn’t an old man. Her short stature, slicked back flowing grey hair, and hunched demeanour reek of someone navigating the end of long life. Despite this, the key storm scene is anchored on her physical performance. With few visual clues to the storm, aside from some dry ice hovering over the stage, it’s Lear, bent over to a near crouch, holding his walking staff aloft, that give you a clear sense as to the ferocity of the weather.
Hunter’s deep and raspy voice is the perfect pairing to her physical manifestation and delivers Lear’s barbarous remarks with a fluid naturalness. However, in all this, she’s able to find the comedy in the role and surprisingly finds moments of levity where possibly there ought not be.
Alongside her Michelle Terry delivers two powerful performances. She switches between affectingly earnest and passionate Cordelia and the wonderfully playful, mischievous Fool, with great ease. Her skill with the language makes her a joy to listen to. Unfortunately, not all cast members appear equally comfortable, and this really does impede the flow of the text and overall understanding of the narrative. This is further impeded by the outdoor setting where, if an actor is not facing your direction, it can be frustratingly hard to clearly hear what’s going on. Whilst this is an annoyance for any play, when it’s Shakespeare, this is practically a cardinal sin.
Those unfamiliar with King Lear will find these issues hugely frustrating as it severely impedes one’s understanding of what’s going on. But this is further impacted by the lack of clarity on certain characters. In Lear a couple of characters undertake disguises at various points. But within this production several actors also play multiple parts, so you’re never too sure, if you’re watching an actor in a new role or a character in disguise.
Whilst these quibbles are, in the main, minor, when you add them together and underlay that to the convoluted story, the combined result is frustratingly confusing.
And the end of it all, the question that begs answering, is “Who is this production of King Lear for?” Fans of Lear can revel in some wonderful performances and see an enthusiastic, if unsurprising, retelling. However, if you have little or no knowledge of this story you’ll rapidly be confused and lost. Whilst there’s much to admire about this production, the reality is that, for the uninitiated you’ll find this an uncomfortable, baffling, and frustrating three hours of your life.
It’s worth noting that the director, Helena Kaut-Howson, was in a car accident two weeks before the opening, so was unable to complete her work. The show was finished off by the rest of the creative team, cast and crew.
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson
Director: Helena Kaut-Howson
Designer: Pawel Dobrzycki
Composer: Claire van Kampen
Movement: Clive Mendus
Fight director: Rodney Cottier
Running Time: Three hours 10 minutes with an interval
Booking to 24th July 2022
New Globe Walk
London SE1 9DT
Phone: 020 7401 9919
Website: Shakespeare’s Globe
Rail/Tube: London Bridge
Reviewed by Sonny Waheed
at Shakespeare’s Globe
on 17th June 2022