Chook Sabtain, Jenny Jules, Jonathan Pryce,

Let's not be literal: When Lear claims he's "fourscore and upwards," he's near death and unreliable, but how old should you be to play the king?

Let’s not be literal: When Lear claims he’s “fourscore and upwards,” he’s near death and unreliable, but how old should you be to play the king? Do it young when you have energy and you risk looking too vital; leave it too long and you can’t scale the heights. Jonathan Pryce, who’s 65, stars in Michael Attenborough’s production, and he has strength but uses it, peculiarly, to show more petulance than power. Though by the end he’s weeping, his performance and the production as a whole feel stolid.

The tone is set by Tom Scutt’s uncharacteristically heavy-handed design. Swathed in swagged, folded and belted medieval-meets-modern costumes, the cast stand about on the stone castle set built in a curve to mimic the theater’s back wall. Steel doors slam shut to punctuate the ends of scenes and it looks all of a piece, but Attenborough’s actors look static rather being in dynamic relationships with one another.

The most vivid performance comes from the least likely source. The Fool is traditionally a role filled with impenetrable observations, but Trevor Fox brings him to life. It’s not just that he speaks in a characterful Geordie (North-East England) accent; Fox also speaks faster than anyone else. He acts on the line rather than pausing to show off thoughts. That means audiences are with him at every beat of dialogue, catching up with his intentions.

Fox, crucially, allows you to see the Fool’s place within the scheme of things. Elsewhere, partly through a lack of directorial definition in people’s relative status, relationships feel under-energized. The actors seem isolated, as if they’ve rarely met. There’s little cumulative rhythm or tension, leaving the play feeling unusually unshaped.

That’s seriously problematic in a play that only works when the eight or nine principal characters are in strong relation to one another. This, after all, is the ultimate drama using a dysfunctional family to examine the darkest and most distressing of ideas.

There is textual clarity here but little or no dynamism, and no dramatic impetus. People flinch at the blinding of Gloucester, but has there ever been a production where people didn’t? The rest of the scene lacks drive, and even the normally febrile Jenny Jules finds little to do as Regan.

Richard Goulding is an unusually well-balanced Edgar — he’s nicely restrained as Mad Tom — and he’s introduced while busily kissing someone (probably a whore given her generic movement). But that’s one of the very few noticeable rethinks. The other is the fiercely sexual kiss that Lear aggressively gives Goneril (Zoe Waites, cast nicely against her usually patient type). But the implication that Lear has abused his daughters charges up a moment rather than the play.

Elsewhere you feel it has been staged rather than directed. That’s clearest of all in Pryce’s performance. He never hits towering rage, not even on the heath. And there’s little worry, let alone terror, when he says, “Let me not be mad.” You never see this man’s wits or body break until his deadpan finish. Given his history as a superb, rabble-rousing Petruchio and his legendary Hamlet, in which he almost vomited forth the ghost from within himself, the performance is a disappointment.

King Lear

Almeida Theater, London; 330 seats; £32 $52 top

Production

An Almeida Theater presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Attenborough.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Tom Scutt; lighting, Jon Clark; sound and music, Dan Jones; production stage manager, Maris Sharp. Opened, review, Sept. 11, 2012. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

King Lear - Jonathan Pryce
Kent - Ian Gelder
Gloucester - Clive Wood
Goneril - Zoe Waites
Regan - Jenny Jules
Cordelia - Phoebe Fox
Edmund - Kieran Bew
Edgar - Richard Goulding
Fool - Trevor Fox
With Ben Dilloway, Steven Elliott, Richard Hope, Barry McCarthy, Andrew Nolan, Chook Sabtain, Christopher Tester, Alix Wilton Regan.

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