Review: KING LEAR, Wyndham's Theatre

Kenneth Branagh's celestial take on King Lear has its head in the clouds

By: Nov. 01, 2023
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Review: KING LEAR, Wyndham's Theatre
King Lear

Alarm bells ring when a director stars in the play they are also directing. Even if that director is Sir Kenneth Branagh. Nine times out of ten the production falls flat and the audience are left wondering if ego is to blame. Branagh’s hotly anticipated stab at King Lear is, sadly, no exception.

His production is eager to stand out. Set in a vague Iron Age Anglo-Saxon England, Lear and his coterie are cloaked in animal hides wielding long sticks and bronze knives. Faces smudged with grime they dance around neolithic rocks under mystic moonlight.

The production hints at celestial portent; the glowing sky is projected overhead. Stars swivel and clouds turn over it. A hole in the centre of the canopy evokes both the solar eclipse and a divine omniscient eye gazing down from the cosmos. Lear’s madness could garner an almost Lovecraftian feel if he didn’t channel the aura of weird uncle rather than a world-weary statemen crushed under the weight of a crumbling kingdom.  

At only 62, Branagh is noticeably young for a Lear, especially compared to other mad kings that have graced London stages: Ian McKellen, Glenda Jackson, or Kathyrn Hunter all appeared physically older and frailer. Here Branagh is spritely, hopping around with warmth, playfully capturing the lyricism in Shakespeare’s language whilst his head glistens full of blonde hair.

His madness comes too suddenly. Lear is struck, as if by an invisible bolt of lightning after a stoney confrontation with Regan and Goneril. Hands clutching his pulsating temples, something has snapped in him, or maybe from above him, the pagan gods snapping their fingers perhaps?

In any case his descent is not a convincing one. More a brief sojourn into mid-life crisis eccentricity than tragic mental disintegration.

The production doesn’t push the central cosmic vision. Jon Bausor’s drab set design is stained in earthy colours. Trying to conjure an elemental force, the stone slabs shudder in and out to mark scene changes. It makes little difference. The two-hour run time without an interval, all looks indistinctly grubby and grey when cast in crepuscular light.

King Lear

Supporting performances are imbalanced. Deborah Alli and Melanie-Joyce Bermudezs’ Goneril and Regan are excellent, powerfully slicing each other with cobra-like venom. But the rest of the cast, all recent RADA graduates, can’t match their delicious ferocity. One suspects Branagh ought to have spread the casting net wider than his alma mater.

Edmund comes across as a bratty cad who struggles to muster any weight behind his Machiavellian scheming. Monologues sorely lack depth or rhythm, something exacerbated by the streamlining of the text. A number of iconic sequences take on an awkwardly silly tone as a consequence. Gloucester’s eyeball gouging has a marionette-like weightlessness, more a formality than brutality even garnering a few awkward sniggers from the audience.

Branagh’s vision is undeniably there, but the execution lacks directorial precision. Nobody doubts his capability as a performer or as a director (see his recent Oscar winning film Belfast). But doing both at the same time does the cast no favours.

King Lear plays at Wyndham's Theatre until 2 December. It transfers to The Shed in New York in Fall 2024.

Photo Credits: Johan Persson