King Lear review: ‘less King Lear and more King Ken’

The litmus test of any “King Lear” is “whether you emerge from the theatre moist-eyed”, said Matt Wolf in The New York Times. Alas, Kenneth Branagh’s new West End production left “my cheeks dry throughout”. The staging is fluid, and Branagh (serving as both director and star) speaks the verse with his trademark clarity. But the production – which runs at a brisk two hours, without interval – feels like an accomplished rhetorical exercise, when this, of all Shakespeare‘s plays, should rattle the soul. It does not “sweep us headlong into savagery or sadness”; there are too few moments that stop the heart; and the “full majesty” of Shakespeare’s “most nerve-shredding tragedy” does not have time to unfold. 

The cast is exclusively made up of (mostly recent) graduates of Rada, where Branagh trained, and where he has been president since 2015, said Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard. I am all for young actors getting a break, but it seems a “bit old-school-tie to only support those from his own top-rank alma mater”. In any case, the gamble doesn’t really pay off, said Sarah Hemming in the FT. Some of these actors turn in fine performances, in particular Corey Mylchreest, who “crackles with bitter rage” as Edmund, and Doug Colling as Edgar. But too many “deliver their roles without really inhabiting them, and many of the key moments feel undernourished”. 

The supporting performances are “uneven”, agreed Clive Davis in The Times. But the more fundamental problem lies with Branagh himself. As a notably fit and lithe 62-year-old, he brings a jarring touch of the “unruly colt” to this decrepit king. “For all the solidity of his verse speaking, it’s hard to believe that this glossy-haired patriarch is really on the verge of mental and spiritual disintegration.” The production as a whole has a “shaggy vigour”, said Susannah Clapp in The Observer. But it misses the scope, the depth, the dislocation and, above all, the “spread of sympathy that gives the play its reach”. It’s “less King Lear and more King Ken”.

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Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2 (0344-482 5151; Until 9 December. Running time: 2hrs. Rating *** 

Stars reflect the overall quality of reviews and our own independent assessment (5 stars=don’t miss; 1 star=don’t bother)

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