DramaFeaturedLondonReview

King Lear – Almeida Theatre, London

Reviewer: Chris Lilly

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Yaël Farber

Lear and his family are not to be trifled with. If their dad says ‘Tell me how much you love me’ then he gets told, unless the teller has the presence and self-awareness of Gloria Obianyo’s Cordelia. Her sisters choose to go in a different, more devious direction, but there is no doubt that Lear has made his daughters into worthy successors. Not nice, not kind, but worthy. The grossly underwritten King of France (Shakespeare’s fault, not Steffan Rizzi playing the part) clearly sees Cordelia not as a sad reject, but as a fighter, a general, an asset in the coming conflict. Lear’s family are a formidable bunch.

Stark-white light cuts through the constant fog that hangs over the Almeida stage. Danny Sapani’s Lear dwindles (so far as a physical presence as powerful as Sapani’s can dwindle) before our occluded eyes, from a towering, blustering, boorish king to a poor forked thing. It is a transformation of considerable force. A marvellous company of actors observes his decline, every actor brings force and presence to the stage, and Gloria Obianyo closes act one and opens and closes act two with a stunning, gorgeous, soul-filled voice – moments of transcendent beauty in a play rendered grimmer than usual in Yaël Farber’s earth-splattered production.

Sapani is huge, but everyone plays their part superbly: the sound design by Peter Rice, which deftly brings the power of storm into a small theatre, the stunning mood lighting by Lee Curran and the simple but effective set by Merle Hensel. The deft arrangement of soil and blood and plastic sheeting is laid down by black-clad stage management, who look pretty creepy as they flit through the crepuscular gloom. It all makes for a riveting, long (three hours and forty-five minutes) show.

It is the actors, however, who deserve the biggest praise. Everyone has their own strategy for surviving in the dog-eat-dog world they are fighting over. Hugo Bolton’s Oswald, for instance – a devious policy-man who doesn’t like violence but uses it anyway – brings a particularly odious charm to the proceedings. Only Alec Newman’s Duke of Kent, presented here as a Glaswegian hard man who meets opposition by putting the head on it, is straightforward. Clarke Peters drifts through the action as a Fool who may be a projection of Lear’s subconscious, but everyone else gets down and dirty. And the dirt is very present, and the action is impressive, and Reagan and Goneril would definitely run the country did they not fall out over Edmund’s (Fra Fee) furry charms. Faith Omole as Reagan has the fake smile, and the ability to deal summarily with the servant who wounds her evil snake of a husband (Edward Davis, a magnificently spiteful Duke of Cornwall), that would make her a shoo-in for prime minister.

This is a glorious production, full of great performances, brilliant tech, and moments that are extremely moving. Even the weird game-playing between Edgar and his blind father, the beetling cliffs of Dover represented by a battered stand-up piano, is moving. And when the singers in the cast take centre stage – that is a moment to savour forever.

Runs until 30 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Stormy stark stentorian

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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