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'King Lear' review — 25 years later, Kathryn Hunter still gives an astounding 'Lear'

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Can it really be 25 years since Kathryn Hunter first played King Lear, the diminutive but mightily gifted performer blazing a gender-flipped trail for the likes of Glenda Jackson, who would follow in the same role on both sides of the Atlantic two decades later?

Astonishingly so, and here Hunter is again undertaking this most momentous of tasks, this time at Shakespeare’s Globe. As it happens, I caught Hunter’s return to the part in the same weekend that saw the passing, age 97, of the great Peter Brook, the director whose celebrated Lear with Paul Scofield is forever spoken of in hushed tones.

And a director, it seems, is what this current production is missing, Helena Kaut-Howson withdrawing several weeks prior to opening due to a car accident: the absence of a governing eye, alas, is keenly felt. (Kaut-Howson directed Hunter’s 1997 Lear, too.)

At times, you marvel at the ability of the ever-wry, spry Hunter to transfix this difficult space with a shrug of the shoulders or the piercingly direct delivery of a line like, “you did me wrong to take me out of the grave”, spoken near the play’s cataclysmic climax.

Riding high from her occupancy of all three witches in last year’s Joel Coen-directed film of Macbeth, Hunter remains as acutely enquiring and intelligent a performer as the British theatre has, and she knows how to grab at this tragedy’s especially grievous undertow.

Making her entrance in a wheelchair from which she proceeds to tap out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on a recorder, she suggests a child-monarch given to caprice who vacillates between judgment and folly, between a quick temper and philosophical resignation. Told by her vicious daughter Regan that Lear is old, Hunter greets that assessment with a knowing nod, as if to ask, “what else is new?”

The core of the staging as it now is rests between Hunter and her boss at the Globe, the theatre’s artistic director Michelle Terry, who doubles as Cordelia and the Fool just as a Tony-nominated Ruth Wilson did opposite Jackson on Broadway in 2019.

An unusually radiant, luxuriantly-tressed Cordelia, Terry transforms early on into a pancake-faced Fool whose devil-may-care demeanour recalls the Hamlet she played so well in her opening season at this address.

More than is customary, you feel the primal bond between Lear and his alter ego-as-sidekick, and one notes a tenderness that at times takes over Hunter’s Lear, notwithstanding the gathering storm in the world beyond and within Lear’s anguished psyche: ready where needed with a hug, Hunter suggest reserves of feeling at odds with Lear’s ferocity.

The performer’s inimitably smoky voice – itself a thing of wonder in plays like The Chairs earlier this year at the Almeida - is sometimes swallowed up in the capacious surrounds, not least in a halfhearted storm scene signalled by stage props whirling about in disarray and a clamour from the musicians perched in the gallery above.

And for all that the programme references “a decaying modern society”, Pawel Dobrzycki’s drab, dun-coloured set doesn’t suggest much of anything at all, once the richly patterned stage curtain at the outset disappears from sight.

The inconsistencies extend to a supporting cast that finds laughs in some appalling places (Gloucester’s comment about having lost his eyes seemed to amuse the crowd the other night) and sets Kwaku Mills and Ryan Donaldson on a collision course to see who can out-act the other, Edgar or Edmund. I’d award that dubious prize to Donaldson, whose hair-tossing villain spends more time singling out hapless spectators in the yard than engaging with the dark heart of this lascivious bastard; the performance is vainglorious to a fault. Mills, sporting a balaclava in combat, needs the sort of reining-in that directors are there to provide.

And while I liked Ann Ogbomo’s sleek, styish Goneril (her entrance is smashing), Marianne Oldham never really registers as Regan, arguably the most depraved of all Shakespeare’s women – and I include in that Lady Macbeth.

A footing of sorts is regained towards the close as Lear voices aloud “the mystery of things” that lies at this play’s darkly imponderable heart and Hunter is seen wheeling on Cordelia in an about-face from the roles of carer and the cared taken by father and daughter three hours before.

Amid an age when human discourse seems to debase itself further by the day, you’d think this would be the ideal time to revisit a play that induces a knowing assent at the assertion after the interval that “wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile” – how true that comment, made apparently in passing, seems just now.

And if a wispy-haired Hunter does indeed succeed in the final sequences in deeply touching the heart, that’s because she remains that rare artist in ongoing touch with humanity at a time when too many people both within this play and well outside it would appear to be losing theirs.

King Lear is at Shakespeare's Globe to 24 July. Book King Lear tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: King Lear (Photo by Johan Persson)

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