King Lear at the Almeida Theatre, Islington

On Friday I went with my son, Kieran, to see “King Lear” at the Almeida in Islington, North London. It features Jonathan Pryce as Lear and a strong cast, who really bring the play to life. The Almeida is an intimate theatre, holding three hundred or so. The stage is set against a simple brick background and the props for the play were kept simple too. The mood was altered by the lights and sound rather than elaborate settings. Doors and windows slammed shut to give a sense of urgency and foreboding. The actors, with the exception of the three daughters, were clad in mediaeval greys and browns. The drama, the colour, was in the acting.

There was a bit of nostalgia in the visit for me. I studied “King Lear” for my A Level English exams back in 1977. And Kieran is doing the same, now, in 2012. Back in ’77 I found Lear inspirational. We had a great teacher who was steeped in the Shakespearean tragedies, and was only too willing to share his knowledge with those of us who took an interest in the subject. We studied “Othello” too and immersed ourselves in the theories of tragedy as comedy and the inevitability of the descent into disaster, no matter what action the characters took. As Gloucester says in Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport…                    

I’ve seen a number of performances of Lear over the years, but being so close to the actors in the Almeida brought home all those lines I’d  absorbed in the past: O reason not the need… I am a man more sinned against than sinning… blow winds, crack your cheeks! I found myself smiling at the recognition of my past. It was like meeting old friends for the first time in thirty years.

More important though, was the power of the performance here in 2012. Jonathan Pryce’s Lear was striking in its portrayal of the descent into madness, and the instability that presaged it. The expectation that his daughters would fall into line as he divided his kingdom, the outrageous reaction to Cordelia’s honesty, the child-like behaviour in the company of his acolytes. A mind corrupted by kingship. The flaws that led to his downfall were brilliantly portrayed by Pryce from the very start.

There’s a moment when Lear’s weakness in the face of his daughters is fully exposed. I always loved those impotent lines, and Pryce articulated them superbly, as if barely able to utter the idle threats:

I will have such revenges on you both, that all the world shall – I will do such things – what they are, yet I know not; but they shall be the terrors of the earth…

There were other powerful performances. I was particularly taken with Richard Goulding’s Edgar – and the vagabond Poor Tom that he becomes in exile – and with Trevor Fox’s Geordie Fool. The Fool is always a great role, because he is the one person who can tell Lear the truth about his appalling misjudgement through his comic utterances:

Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?

Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away…

Clive Wood exuded a quiet and bewildered dignity as Gloucester. His reunion with Edgar, at first unknowing then revealed, I found very moving.  Zoe Waites as Goneril and Jenny Jules as Regan played the sisters with the right mix of exasperation, growing into betrayal and then lust and rivalry, for Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, whose scheming brings everything to its disastrous conclusion.

There were scenes of tremendous power.  The storm, when Lear and his cronies have been booted out of Gloucester’s castle by Cornwall and Regan, with the help of darkness, dry ice and some noise, had a real sense of chaos and vulnerability. No-one knew what to do. The gouging of Gloucester’s eyes by Cornwall was suitably gruesome. There was a splendid sword fight between Edmund and Edgar near the end – this was one of Kieran’s favourite moments. And then, the conclusion, when Lear is reunited with Cordelia and then loses her, to a botched death, was incredibly moving.  As Lear holds the limp body of Cordelia close to him and grieves, you feel all the anger and despair and regret. It is a transfixing moment, a brilliant piece of acting by Jonathan Pryce.  I, for one, shed a tear in the darkness…

I think, for Kieran, this was a fantastic way of gaining insight into the depth and power of the play as he studies it for A level. To get a sense of the narrative and the interaction of the characters. And to understand why, even in the 21st century, there is a playwright from four hundred years ago who still portrays the human condition better than anyone else.

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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7 Responses to King Lear at the Almeida Theatre, Islington

  1. javaj240 says:

    I love “Lear”. I cannot imagine it ever being dated, unless human nature dramatically changes— for the better!

  2. DyingNote says:

    I’ve only read ‘Lear’, never seen in enacted on stage. Well-written post this, John.

    Coincidentally, we saw 2 Shakespeare adaptations last week. One was the execrable ‘Seussification of Romeo and Juliet’ and the other was the excellent Hindi language adaptation, ‘Piya Behrupiya’, of ‘Twelfth Night’, which had been staged at the Globe festival earlier this year.

  3. John S says:

    One of the great things about Shakespeare’s plays is that they can be interpreted in so many ways, through the prisms of different cultures. Each reveals new insights.

  4. Wanton boy says:

    Nice job, John, and not a hint of the A-level essay about it, I promise! You need have no such fears…..

    Your blog took me back to an amazing Lear at Stratford in 1976 – so pretty much at the same time as your own studies. Lear was Donald Sinden – of all people – but he did a brilliant job. Then we had the peerless Michael Pennington as Edgar, Robin Ellis – fresh from Poldark! – as Edmund, Alice Krige as Cordelia, and I even think (must check) Judy Dench as Regan.

    It’s impossible to say whether Lear is my favourite. I think it is – until I see Hamlet…or Othello…. They’re always my big three. But god, it’s good! So much of what you say resonated with me. And it’s helped, for context, to be reading the best book on Shakespeare that I’ve ever read – James Shapiro’s 1599 – A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. A brilliant, brilliant piece of work.

    So, thanks again for a great review, and the echo of great memories. The master keeps on giving. (Sorry – him, not you, on this occasion.)

    • John S says:

      Thanks Jon, and that book sounds really interesting. I read the Bill Bryson book on Shakespeare, which basically said we haven’t got a clue about his life. Shapiro’s sounds a bit better! Still, I haven’t started the three volumes of Picasso that you recommended yet. They look cool on the shelf though…

  5. Pingback: King Lear-ing « Dreambles

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