I do not expect ever to see a production of King Lear shorter than Kenneth Branagh’s, which runs to only two hours, and comes with no interval – 55 minutes in, and our capricious monarch is already wandering about in the rain, his wits fraying faster than a pair of old jeans.
But then, this staging, in which the actor directs himself in the title role, owes an awful lot to television, and not only because of its blunt abridgements and almost painful desperation not to be boring. The vibe is Game of Thrones meets HS2 protest camp, the cast decked out in bits of fur and sealskin gaiters. Like Swampy, Branagh has a ratty little plait in his bog-brush hair, and he staggers around to the sound of low beating drums, the digital sky above him magicking stars, clouds and even a wheeling black kestrel from the ether.
What’s strange, however, is how little this heavily signposted inauspiciousness works on you. I’ve often been baffled by Lear, but rarely have I been less moved by a production than this one – and on the night I saw it, others surely felt the same. When Gloucester (Joseph Kloska) was blinded, the audience laughed as Cornwall (Hughie O’Donnell) threw a red blob of an eyeball to the floor, as if it was so much offal. Branagh has surrounded himself here entirely with young Rada graduates, some of them making their theatrical debuts, and while this may speak of a certain generosity on his part, there’s no getting away from the callowness of the cast, the want of charisma. The most vital, stirring scenes are more camp than piteous, enthusiasm no substitute at all for mastery.
Goneril (Deborah Alli) and Regan (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) abuse their father in voices that are quite amazingly – almost impressively – affectless. High emotion is signified by shouting; the rest of the time, they merely recite their lines. When Regan asks “What need one?” of her father’s insistence he be allowed to maintain his retinue, she might as well be pondering a bus timetable.
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Jessica Revell, who plays both Cordelia and the Fool, copes better with the metre, but her performance is a touch limpid for my taste (I prefer my Cordelia more passive-aggressive than sopping wet). Only the actors who star as Gloucester’s sons, Edmund (Corey Mylchreest) and Edgar (Doug Colling), rise fully to the occasion, the former in particular combining temerity and malice with a relish – “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” – that elbows everyone else clean off the stage. He is fantastic.
Alas, Branagh also gets a good, hard shove from this young pretender. Whenever Lear is on stage, there is a vacuum – a space that is gaping, dramatically speaking, and would be so, I think, even for those determined to think of Lear as a play about dementia (though I’m with Kenneth Tynan; most of the time, I regard the madness as willed). Branagh’s voice is at once highly mannered and woefully underpowered, his extended vowels, rolling r’s and misplaced emphases strongly suggestive of the kind of old-fashioned Shakespearean who wears tights (think Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood – which, to be honest, I would far rather have been watching).
As the madness takes hold, it’s alarming to see all the acting Branagh is doing: his failure to feel his way through the great speeches, to lose himself inside them. It’s as if a beautiful bespoke suit – those fine English words – has been turned inside out, the better that we might see its seams. Twigs on his head, his youngest daughter dead in his arms, I found that I felt very little at all at the last; even numbness eluded me. Branagh kept those famous howls of grief silent, a decision of which I sensed he was proud. But his mouth opened and closed so slowly, to me it looked – and felt – as if he was only yawning.
“King Lear” runs until 9 December 2023
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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts