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Review: KING LEAR, Shakespeare's Globe

Nancy Meckler makes her Globe debut with the penultimate show of the season, a well-known tragedy to contrast with recent comedies: King Lear. It casts a darker shadow over the Summer of Love, looking more at familial love and various struggles for power.

The eponymous king is in the twilight of his life, so seeks to rid himself of all responsibilities whilst remaining monarch. He asks his three daughters (Goneril, Regan and Cordelia) who loves him the most, in order to determine what he thinks they deserve of his kingdom.

Whereas the elder daughters have only ambition in mind, Cordelia is pure of heart and cannot articulate her love for her father - taking this as an affront, Lear splits his kingdom between Regan and Goneril, and marries his youngest child off to the King of France. It doesn't take long for his rowdy behaviour to start irritating Goneril, and then Regan; he is cast out and the kingdom thrown into turmoil.

The production itself appears to be framed by a group of homeless people gathering and putting on a play, judging by how they enter and exit - this theme pervades almost the entire play in one way or another, yet it isn't the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the play. It is an interesting concept (and undoubtedly a very important social issue), but I'm not sure what it really adds.

The set isn't particularly elaborate, beginning the play mostly covered or boarded up - the cast gradually strip it down throughout, until much of the theatre itself can be seen. Again, it hints at symbolism but doesn't quite follow through. Where it excels visually is in its lighting design (Anna Watson); the storm sequence is a real highlight, as lights swirl and pulse to the percussive beat of the thunder and lightning.

Some of the cast seem to struggle with projection, perhaps not helped by a reluctance to share attention around the entire auditorium - asides and soliloquies aimed at the audience are far more effective. There is also a curious injection of melodrama at times, causing the audience to snigger and not feel the emotion of the piece so deeply. Occasional stilted delivery (of which Burt Caesar as Gloucester is the main offender) either makes the audience laugh or not follow the meaning of the lines.

Of the rest of the main cast, Anjana Vasan shines, endowing Cordelia with more spirit from the off than you might usually expect. Joshua James is fearless as Edgar (and his alter ego, Poor Tom), and certainly the most personable. The portrayal of Edmund, Gloucester's illegitimate son, can make or break a production - and Ralph Davis absolutely rises to the occasion. Much like Richard III, he attempts to make us complicit in his crimes, Davis exuding a devious charisma and possessing excellent comic timing.

Whilst Lear's personal struggles almost play second fiddle to the sisters' power struggle by the end, that doesn't stop Kevin McNally from putting in a revelatory performance. He captures the cruel humour of the king, and sensitively shows his gradual decline into madness - his final scene is incredibly moving.

A production that has some extraordinary moments amidst less convincing ones, but tells a powerful story nonetheless - and boasts some memorable performances.

King Lear is at Shakespeare's Globe until 14 October

Picture credit: Marc Brenner

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