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FringeReview UK 2022

King Lear

Shakespeare’s Globe

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: Shakespeare’s Globe


Low Down

Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson (Assistant Director Naeem Hayet), Designer Pawel Dobrzycki (Assistant Slawomir Szondelmajer). Creative Collaborator Marcello Magni

Composer Claire van Kampen Beth Higham-Edwards (Percussion), Courtney Brown (Bass Trombone) Richard Henry (Bass Trombone, Tenor Trombone, Percussion) Sarah Homer (Soprano Saxophone/Bass Clarinet/Whistles), Adrian Woodward (Musical Director/Trumpet/Whistles). Jig Choreographer Sian Williams.

Movement Director Clive Mendus (Associate Glynn MacDonald), Fight Directors Rodney Cottier, Joseph Reed (Associate)

Head of Voice Tess Dignan. Globe Associate Text Giles Block

Costumer Supervisor Hattie Barsby, Costume Assistant Holly Hughes, Costume Breakdown Lucy Griffiths, Honor Parker, Costume Makers/Tailoring Adrian Gwillym, Brenda Palmer, Claire Thornton), Head of Props Emma Hughes, Head of Wigs and Make-Up Pam Humpage (Deputy Lottie Bull, Assistant Ella Baumann). Head of Stage Bryan Paterson (Deputies Spike Morton, Ben Young), Head of Wardrobe Emma Seychell (Deputy Emma Lucy-Hughes). Tiring House Max Rodriguez Thorp. Wardrobe Assistants Ruby Antonowicz-Behnan, Eugenia Fiusco, Laila Jam. Wardrobe tech Imogen Rhodes, Venue Technicians Jack Cray, Charlotte Hurford.

Casting Becky Paris, Production Manager Wills, Stage Manager Rebecca Austin, DSM Rosalind Dore (Emily Stedman Rehearsals), ASM Josh York, Company Manager Marion Marrs and DCM Kristy Bloxham, Stage Management Placements George Watton, Samantha Wilson, Producer Tamsin Mehta. Cover and Production Photography Kate Bones.

Prop Makers Melanie Brookes, Katy Brooks, Claire Esnault, Penny Spedding, Scenic Artists Virginie Bourgery, Emily Carne, David Gardner, Bruno Gomez, Mary Macken Allen. Set Builder Scott Fleary Productions.

Till July 24th.



Perhaps it was like this in 1606: rarely has the Globe’s stage fitted a play so well, so baldly fleet, shorn of more than a few props, soon bleached of colour with a percussion storm brewing.

Here a kingdom’s swept clear of splendour after the initial gorgeous façade, a fabric suggesting the usual décor strips away to ladders, bare or netted facades, stark sweeps of stage, trapdoor for Poor Tom’s hovel, in Pawel Dobrzycki’s bleak set.

1606 was a nation just entering into nostalgia for dead Elizabeth I, new-marketed as Good Queen Bess. We’re on the other side of that divide now: King Lear is the performative end, not of an individual monarch, but a way of succession, a world teetering on a dark age. ‘Is this the promised end?’ muses Kent on Lear’s, the kingdom’s, perhaps the world’s – it was a time much possessed with apocalypse.

Indeed this production’s been bedevilled with more than the usual run of Globe bad luck with some cancellations. Today yet another cast member (no understudies here, but superfast substitute). The Globe’s new flexibility kicks in though. With director Helena Kaut-Howson injured before the premiere, the company led by Michelle Terry reverted to methods they adopted in 2018: co-directing, completing Kaut-Howson’s work. Methods now wholly vindicated in this almost unbearably moving production.

To Claire van Kampen’s crumping trombones – it’s a score studded in brass and thunder – the glacial crash of generations and siblings sheers the nation apart.

Kathryn Hunter’s Lear comes on wheelchaired playing ‘twinkle twinkle’ on a recorder to a court in Edwardian garb, sombre hunting greens and blacks in Hattie Barsby’s costumes – hardly countering an initial scarlet flunky garb we never see again, in a rewilding of subdued motley. No reason for Edwardiana bar the end of empire emerges (Edwardian garb was present in the Kenneth Branagh Winter’s Tale, and Michael Pennington Lear too), but the fall from it crumples well.

Withering into Hunter’s truth, rarely has Lear seemed so frail yet wired with active senescence. Hunter herself has only just recovered from illness, but waves of wintry clarity radiate as she engages with her daughters. We sense this Lear’s just beginning. She’ll throw all her deadly toys out of the wheelchair. Very different from her 1997 Lear (also with Kaut-Howson) set in a resident’s home, this Lear takes on what Hunter directed in Edward Petherbridge’s 2014 My Perfect Mind, an account of when a stroke deprived him of his role, yet perfectly recalled.

With a halo of wisp-white hair like the ageing Franz Liszt, Hunter’s spider-black apparel both contains her force (memorably in the Almeida’s The Chairs or referenced at the end of this performance) and acts like a black hole, magnetising a nation, or family into oblivion. A malicious caprice of second childhood suggests where at least two daughters get it from. Hunter quivers with remembered fencing, flaying about her with a sword, almost taunting attendants to restrain her violence. It’s unsettling, lacking tenderness. This Lear has to crack into humanity, plays to no-one, eschews mere pathos. Lear’s loss of majesty is hard-won.

The heart of this production was always going to be Hunter’s relationship with Terry. As a nunnish white-clad Cordelia Terry’s forthright, almost pathologically averse to flattery; yet capable of those touches of gentleness alien to her family. It makes their reunion almost unbearable. Terry manages to deliver love and censure to her father and sisters with a ringing passion that rescues this Cordelia from indulgent high-mindedness. Even her ‘No cause, no cause’ convinces. Terry’s physical filigree tenderness with Hunter fines them down to God’s spies.

As Fool, Cordelia’s substitute (traditionally the same actor), Terry’s clown-white face is topped in a Seventies Pentangle singing-hat (perfect for such folksongs we get) with a touch of Annie Hall. It’s usually Lear ‘fantastically arrayed’ in Act IV, but here Terry assumes it like Lucky (she carries two suitcases to exile, and that’s Lucky too). It’s existential, Peter Brook-ish, and today that turned prophesy. Terry’s comedic joy cavorts and suddenly drops into: ‘thou should not been old till though hadst been wise’, where Terry holds the authority banished Kent declares in Lear.

Ann Ogbomo’s Goneril (and Curran) towers vocally as she does over husband Albany: chillingly regal, crystalline in the command you sense Lear might have possessed, she dispenses a flick of scorn (‘your manhood, mew’) and passion with a mere wave of a hand; or in a clinch with Ryan Donaldson’s Edmund surrenders only to a man who can overtop her. ‘Cleopatra’ mutters someone nearby and with Ogbomo’s vast Shakespearean experience you hope this might be.

You can see what this Goneril might do to Marianne Oldham’s flirty, sexy Regan, whose cruelty’s almost casual, improvisatory, lacking the grand Machiavel of her elder sibling. Indeed this Regan suggests – apart from vicious entitlement – she might dwindle happily into Edmund’s wife.

Gabriel Akuwudike’s Kent is active, wiry, alert, admirably blunt yet capable of sotto voce intimation. Glyn Pritchard’s physically overborne but vocally overtopping Albany with other roles shows gathering resolve.

It’s a quality Kwaku Mills’ initially bookish Edgar plays with, almost too grateful to subside into a larky madness as a default from responsibility. His vocal mimicry and destabilised identity goes way beyond Kent’s settled alter ego, as if he too seeks something only storms bring.

Mills’ interaction with Diego Matamoros’s Gloucester is the culmination of both actors’ trajectory:  Matamoros is classic dignified vassal-lord, yet his casting himself off an imagined cliff-face with Mills seeking to purge him of suicide, is in a class of Lear. With Hunter too, his relationship’s calibrated from care-worn attendant to post-gouging fellow-sufferer. There isn’t a fond falling-in but a blaze of Lear self-recognitions for Gloucester to sear through.

Donaldson’s Edmund is a study in self-delight. He’s sexy and he knows it; mentioning ‘talking’ with either sister raises a laugh after seeing him cavort with them almost in front of husbands. He’s been doing more than that for ages, and only in his soliloquy is there a hint of taking too long about the world standing up for bastards.

Mark Jax’s bullying Cornwall strides in and out of life, taking himself off with his mortal wound not felling him straight away, to an uncaring wife. Aristocratic sneer in its prime. Unlike Albany with Goneril, Jax flexes tacit command over Regan yet in this production loses her before he dies.

Max Keeble’s Burgundy and most of all a sneeringly owlish but murderous factotum Oswald mixes servility with self-serving. Emma Ernest’s France and occasional Gentleman champions Cordelia with more warmth than usual. Issam Al Ghussain’s Lear’s Knight, Gloucester’s Servant, Herald is already flying off the page despite standing in for Cory Hippolyte at the last moment.

Most characters are symptoms of the ‘plague’ Lear unleashes and often cites unwittingly. It’s what they bring out of the storm, whether they venture it or not, that stacks up. At the moment it lowers outside, like a prophesy. Only stripping off lendings – as eventual ruler Edgar does too – saves us. Edgar’s proto-Caliban markings brand Lear’s successor with self-knowing. In this extremity only extremes serve. Hunter’s last agonising ‘never’ cracks nature.

It fell to Hunter too to tacitly orate Edgar’s epitaph on Lear on a colossus. Cycling in – that energy again – Hunter heard, she tells us, of the death of Peter Brook at 97. ‘We that are young shall never see so much, or live so long.’ The cast visibly affected, for a moment reclaimed a very different empty space.

Otherwise it’s Hunter’s and Terry’s mutual reach that bites into memory. There’s been some memorable Lears over the past decade, Pennington and Glenda Jackson among them. But rarely has a Cordelia and Fool scaled such equal terms with such a Lear, rendering a kind of infinity.