King Lear

"This show is a powerful tale of destruction sprinkled with jovial moments"

King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies and despite it being written as early as 1605, surprisingly it hasn’t diminished its relevance to our modern lives today. This new production officially opened in London’s West End on the 31st October and we were invited to witness the drama unfurl to see if it lived up to the hype!

Shakespeare’s story tells of (a fictional) an old King of England, soon to be retired, who wants to divide his land and riches between his three daughters. To help him with this division, each daughter must quantify their love and admiration for him, in turn determining how much they will inherit as their dowry, however it doesn’t go exactly to plan for the King. The youngest daughter refuses to partake in the flattery, resulting in no inheritance and is shortly banished from the land. The play follows the aftermath of the King’s decision, how it affects his mental health and causes the ultimate destruction of the entire family. There is also a subplot of the Earl of Gloucester, another rash and ruthless father whose actions also induce the ruin of his family. 

This version of King Lear is directed by renowned thespian and director Kenneth Branagh. We watched Branagh take on the title role along with a cast of 14 here at the Wyndhams Theatre, London.

This show is a powerful tale of destruction sprinkled with jovial moments. It highlights the brilliant writing of Shakespeare which, even in a tragedy, can host an abundance of quick-witted light and shade. The writing is very accessible, translating well even in modern times, and for me this reaffirms that a lot of Shakespeare’s plays were written as entertainment for all, especially the working class.

I have to say my favourite thing about this performance was the set design. Jon Bausor created a world where we were immediately transported to a Pre-roman Britain with a fantasy flare. There were several large rocks placed around the edges, creating a semi-circle of action and a clear focal point. Above the stage, a sizeable and very striking eye was featured, taking up the entire ceiling of the performance space. The significance of the eye becomes growingly apparent as the story develops and I loved watching it evolve into different parts of the production. The eye was used initially to create the image of an ominous night sky, radiating a moonlight glow alongside a projection of stars. At times it would act as the sun, slowly setting and other times darkened completely to give a sinister tone.

With a number of references to God in this piece, having the eye situated above the actors created a sense of a higher power always watching. Eyes presented themselves through the entirety of the show, with dramatic scene changes of close-up faces cast in projections across the stones or the uncomfortable-to-watch punishment of Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes. Even the metaphorical presence of both the fathers ‘blindness’ of their undoing was hinted.

The Lighting was managed by Paul Keogan and saw a mostly dark stage throughout. I enjoyed the fluctuating use of light and shade which kept it interesting. There was a light atmospheric haze, interrupted only by a few spotlights piercing through. A cleverly placed red hue was present for the battle scenes, matching the rage and danger of the bloody conflicts.

Even though all of the costumes were individual to each character, they shared an earthy palette with natural tones of browns, greens and greys. Frequently during the show, props of long sticks were used as weapons as well as beat-creators to punctuate the text. I thought the stage combat scenes were very well executed and the tribal chant opening introduced us to the cast members and set the scene of the animalistic and emotionally charged narrative.

King Lear, the lead was played by Kenneth Branagh, an actor and director well known for his roles in Hamlet, Henry V and Murder on the Orient Express. I imagine the King to be a very appealing character to play as he experiences such a spectrum of emotions. The egocentric, obnoxious leader slowly withers into a crazed, confused and remorseful father. Branagh had good stage presence who gave well considered stature, voice and gestures. I did feel his performance could have gone even deeper in connection to the maddened King. 

The three daughters in which the play is centred around each possessed unique attributes. First we are introduced to the eldest, Goneril (Deborah Alli) who amorously is mostly driven by her desire to be with Edmund. We then meet the fiery middle daughter, Regan (Melanie-Joyce Bermudez) and after, the youngest, more virtuous and honest Cordelia (Jessica Revell). I enjoyed the strong female energy this play holds combining defiant daughters with competitive sisterly rivalry and certain fiery, spirited energy.

I thought that Eleanor de Rohan did a commendable portrayal of Kent, the King’s loyal servant. She encompassed the role well with believable motivations, amusing accent changes and playful streaks.

Corey Mylchreest’s character Edmund had purpose, charm and his verses flowed very easily from him. Doug Colling, also played a likeable Edgar and included amusing shifts to his disguise of ‘Poor Tom’.

Overall, I enjoyed this cast’s impression of King Lear, I just felt like I was lacking connection to the roles. I found some of the acting to be more focused on narrating the text to us, spelling out the prose rather than finding the truth to their character’s speech. I felt as though they had all the conviction in their bodies, just not in their hearts.

This show was reviewed on the 28th October.  King Lear runs at the Wyndhams Theatre until the 9th December 2023.  Tickets available here: King Lear - Wyndham's Theatre (delfontmackintosh.co.uk)

Review written by Jasmine Alice

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Photo credit: Johan Persson

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