Review: Almeida King Lear

I downloaded and watched Digital Theatre‘s production of the Michael Attenborough/Jonathan Pryce King Lear at the Almeida Theatre. It’s definitely worth watching if you have the time.

Digital Theatre has a number of Shakespeare plays on hand, including several from the new Globe Theatre. These, however, you can also get on Amazon. They have a number of other Shakespeare plays however, including this King Lear, a David Tennant Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, Comedy of Errors, and As You Like It. I’ve also seen the Comedy of Errors–hopefully sometime I’ll have the time to write a review of it–which I recommend.

But this production of Lear is quite good. It’s mostly done in the naturalistic style of acting, which suits Jonathan Pryce very well. He agony at the death of Cordelia is believable and moving; he goes deep down the emotional well. He appears to almost have a psychotic break after the “let me be not mad” speech; the fool holds him in an attempt to calm him down. It’s great naturalistic acting (Anthony Sher would be proud), but during this the daughters on stage seem totally unmoved, which doesn’t seem to me to be a very realistic response. But perhaps this is no fault of the actors; Shakespeare was writing for Elizabethan actors on an Elizabethan stage and wasn’t writing a script designed for realistic acting.

As with all these productions; naturalistic acting has its limitations. For me, another example is that during Lear’s death scene he feels the need to convulse and shake–I suppose intimating that he is having a heart attack or stroke. (He sets this up earlier in the production; when Cordelia gives him nothing he clutches at his heart as if to suggest he has a heart condition). Erin Sullivan has written a convincing argument on this subject, but Elizabethans would not have required “realistic” convulsions to make this scene believable; they would have believed that someone could die from emotional causes, and, I have to admit, in theatrical terms watching Pryce convulse on stage while no one does anything came off, to me, just a bit weird. (Kent does say “Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass,” but would you say that if someone were convulsing?)

Pryce’s howl, howl, howl (5.3.270) was also slightly disappointing; I’ve seen this done to great effect. A supernumerary carries in Cordelia for him (rather than dragging her on, which is how many of the productions I have seen have handled it), and he says “howl” at some of the other actors on stage, as if challenging them to howl. Which makes sense, given his next line is “Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so/That heaven’s vault should crack.” But then, shouldn’t he have done this himself? In other words, how can he criticize the other characters for not howling when he did not? I’ve seen actors do “howl” as a cry of anguish with great feeling, which really seems to work on stage; saying “howl” comes off, again, a bit weird.

But then in the same article I’ll criticize him for ranting and raving in the first act. He gets so angry at Cordelia at times that he seems like a lunatic. Naturalistically speaking, this is consistent–but the problem then is there’s no pathos when things start to turn against him. No tragedy. If he’s just a crazy, inconsiderate, self-centered, angry old man–which you can play him as, it’s in the text–then who cares when his daughters turn against him? They should! He’s just a crazy, angry old man. When he rants and raves in the storm, my mind is honestly thinking, “Well, you should have been nicer to them,” where I think we’re supposed to be feeling emotional sympathy towards him.

I’m also going to take issue with the interpretive choice of suggesting that there has been some sexual impropriety between Lear and Goneril, or especially Regan. When Lear comes to greet Regan after leaving Goneril, he kisses and caresses her as if coming home to a lover. This has become a more popular interpretation recently, but it’s not textual and doesn’t seem to work in production. Again, it just adds nasty and cruel to the list of Lear’s faults, making sympathy for him during the storm difficult.

Pryce also delivers the always questioned “my fool hanged” line as if looking around for his fool, which doesn’t make sense to me. Why, as he cradling Cordelia in his arms in grief, would he suddenly think of his fool? It seems much more likely that he referring to Cordelia as a fool. (Trevor Fox’s very good fool quietly creeps off stage after they lead Lear off to Dover as if he’s thrown in the towel.) But, I quibble, these are choices every actor has to make; all in all Pryce’s Lear is one of the best I have seen. His character choices are believable, he acting very moving, and his madness seems very real.

I just always wonder how much better this production would have been with the lights on. As I’ll write more about later, there is no right or wrong way to produce Shakespeare, but to me it seems to work better on stage when actors can see the audience. Shakespeare wrote for an Elizabethan theater, which performed plays during the day in natural light. So it makes sense that he took that into consideration when he wrote his plays. They can be done other ways, of course, and to good effect. But who is Edmund talking to?

All in all, however, this is a good production with some fine acting and a few interesting interpretations, well worth watching. If you’ve seen it, leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Production Notes

Other small notes; after have seen live music in performances, I dislike piped in music or noticeable sound effects. Lots of theaters and directors use them; I wish they wouldn’t. Rain/thunder effects are okay, but they, as here, tend to be overdone. I tend to dislike as well how these plays are lit; again, my preference is for the lights to be turned on. Here, other than the already mentioned problem with being unable to address the audience, creating mood lighting makes it difficult for the cameras. The scenes in the storm are lit so badly for the cameras that at points you almost can’t make out what is going on. Cameras are hungry for light.

The sword fighting however, was quite good (fighter director Terry King). A little bit long perhaps, but athletic and believable; Edgar (Richard Goulding) and Edmund (Kieran Bew) appeared to be quite practiced at it.

On the text, they used at least some text from the quarto version (Goneril’s trial). I would like to check how much of it they used; Edgar’s poor Tom speeches in particular I think are from the quarto version. Note to self; I’ll check. Edgar delivers the last lines of the play.

As with most British productions, the verse speaking is good. I like how Pryce emphasized “a rat” in the line “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?” (5.3.321-22). There were some noticeable accents in this production, Edmund and the Fool especially, but I didn’t find it distracting and actually rather enjoyed them.

No problems with the set design (credited to Capitol Scenery); a fairly bare stage, sometimes with a wooden throne/chair, the background is made to look like stone. Nothing of note, but not distracting.

The actor playing Kent (Ian Gelden) is older than I usually seem him; no judgement, just a comment. He does have to trip Oswald and do some physical bits; I thought he was fine. The Fool does some magic tricks when he first comes on stage, which was interesting. The entire production was very physical; Lear slaps Oswald at one point, Albany chokes Goneril and Cornwall steps forward to threaten Lear until Reagan intercedes. I’m not sure the text warrants this, but again, choices have to be made.

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