King Lear: Making the complicated, confounding

“’Tis the times plague, when madmen lead the blind!”

 Gloucester Act 4, Scene 1

Kenneth Branagh as King Lear. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Does London need another King Lear? It’s barely a year since The Globe put on its gender-blind production featuring Kathryn Hunter. Well, if you ask Kenneth Branagh the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. So much so that he’s gone and done it himself.

Whilst this is billed as William Shakespeare’s King Lear it is definitely Branagh’s King Lear. He has taken on the directing helm and also plays the eponymous monarch. Unlike the frail end-of-life Lear from the Globe’s recent production, Branagh gives us a vital, impishly playful, at times coquettish, Lear.

Actually, you may be surprised at amount of humour to be had in Shakespeare’s most tragic of tragedies. Whilst there’s expectation for the Fool (Jessica Revell) to provide some lighter moments, bringing humour into Edmund (Corey Mylchreest) is quite something else.

This is Lear with a difference. Branagh has not just bought us another Lear, he’s bought a Lear for the 21st century. The show has been truncated to a mere two hours, performed without interval. Whilst this causes much fidgeting and numbness of the buttocks, it does give the whole experience a significantly cinematic feel.

Corey Mylchreest as Edmund, Doug Colling as Edgar, Caleb Obediah as Albany Deborah Alli as Govern. (Photo: Johan Persson)

This is further enhanced by Jon Bausor’s mesmerising set design that is at once futuristic and historical. A doughnut shaped screen dominates the stage that rises and falls creating space and confinement as required. With projections, its surface shifts to represent planets, landscapes, and the sky. Along the walls of the stages are Stonehenge-style monoliths that provide a more tribal feeling but, equally importantly, space and shadows for characters to hide in. And, to further reinforce the cinematic overtones, they’re used to receive close up projects of certain character’s faces at key moments. It’s a triumphant piece of set design.

The reduced runtime, however, is not completely successful. The shorter narratives make for a zippier production focusing more on the action of the play but, in doing so, the emotional heft is lost. The multitude of sub-plots, not given the time to develop in themselves, gives off an air of a Mexican telenovela – more soap opera than family drama.

Lear’s descent into madness is impressively performed but feels rushed. His relationship with his daughters never feels fully formed and whilst the lack of emotional cohesion can be attributed to his increasing madness, it just doesn’t ring fully true.

Jessica Revell as The Fool and Kenneth Branagh as Lear (Photo: Johan Persson)


The performances too are a slightly mixed bag, though not detrimentally so. Branagh, as one might expect, shines as Lear. He is a natural speaker of Shakespearean English, making it feel like he was born speaking this way. The younger cast deliver strong performances though some do labour over the language in parts, but uniformly deliver a clear and understandable delivery of the text. Revell excels as both The Fool and Cordelia.  Deborah Alli and Melanie-Joyce Bermudez are a little one-noted as Goneril and Regan, respectively. Mylchreest presents an effectively scheming hot-headed Edmund though his hatred for his loving family is never effectively understood. The other primary characters are played effectively well, though alongside Branagh, most come across as slightly on the back foot.

All said and done, this is an exciting if flawed production. It’s a Lear for action movie fans – there’s the cinematic set design, the truncated text, action a plenty and even gore (Gloucester’s blinding causing a number of gasps in the auditorium). But, in doing all this it loses its essence. Things happen, but the what’s and wherefores are missing, leaving you with questions,  an unexpected emotional void. This Lear is exhilarating and slightly disappointing, but well worth seeing.


Jessica Revell as Cordelia and Kenneth Branagh as Lear. (Photo: Johan Persson)

Production Notes

King Lear

Directed by Kenneth Branagh



Kenneth Branagh

Eleanor de Rohan

Jessica Revell

Joseph Kloska

Mara Allen

Raymond Anum

Doug Colling

Deborah Alli

Melanie‑Joyce Bermudez

Dylan Corbett‑Bader

Chloe Fenwick‑Brown

Corey Mylchreest

Hughie O’Donnell

Caleb Obediah


Director: Kenneth Branagh

Designer: Jon Bausor

Choreographer: Aletta Collins

Lighting Designer: Paul Keoghan

Sound Designer: Ben Ringham, Max Ringham

Video /Projection Designer:  Nina Dunn

Fight Director: Bret Yount


Running Time: Two hours without an interval

Booking to 9th December 2023


Wyndhams Theatre

Charing Cross Road

London WC2H 0DA

Telehone: 0844 482 5151

Tube: Leicester Square

Telephone: 0344 871 7628


Reviewed by Sonny Waheed

on 1st November 2023