Back in the 1600s I imagine there was a game show named Family Misfortunes, in which 100 Gunpowder plotters were asked ‘What is the most ridiculously ill-conceived act a king could do if he were in the winter of his life?’ 98% of the surveyed said ‘Split his country into three based on the description of love given by his daughters.’
Yet every time I see Shakespeare’s famous tragedy King Lear, the misadvised monarch does just that, granting too much power to silver-tongued siblings Goneril and Regan, and too little to the truthful Cordelia. Of course, if he didn’t we wouldn’t be able to enjoy this rich drama in which family disloyalty, the drive to usurp one’s elders and deception flows like a river of malady.
On Tom Scott’s set, which resembles an ancient castle that has been saved by English Heritage – cold, bare bricks supporting protected viewing balconies and electric lighting – the Almeida’s Artistic director Michael Attenborough has steered clear of forcing a setting onto the play. Long, flowing cloaks and leather jerkins are the order of the day; this is not a kingdom of opulence and luxury but one where serviceability and reality rule.
Similarly, there is no fanfare for the Lear played by Tony and Olivier Award-winner Jonathan Pryce, returning to the Almeida’s stage for the first time since The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia. Instead, he offers a ruler whose age shows through his exuberant eyebrows and regal beard.
Boy, is he angry. From the moment Phoebe Fox – who looks like a Shakespearean Snow White with her raven hair and creamy skin – as a Cordelia with more than a whiff of the protesting teenager about her, refuses to profess the deepness of her love, this is a Lear who rants and rails, growls, roars and shouts with rage like a wounded lion shorn of his royal mane. There’s a little light relief when he descends into a comic madness, but Pryce’s is a Lear of full-bloodied resentment.
Elsewhere in the cast Kieran Bew adds to his growing list of impressive performances with a plotting Edmund given a broad Northern swagger, as he executes his own patricidal plan, though with a stubble less impressive than many of the hirsute chin-coverings on show.
Amid the downpour of insults that would make one of Monty Python’s famous Frenchmen blush, the most poignant moment comes between Trevor Fox’s simple, sincere Fool and Lear; a moment of quiet stillness expressing a love that need not be spoken.