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'King Lear' review – Kenneth Branagh's youthful performance is enjoyably accessible

Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear, starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh, is now in performances at the Wyndham's Theatre to 9 December.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

The modern equivalent of a Georgian or Victorian actor-manager, Kenneth Branagh has done a huge amount to popularise Shakespeare; his visually lavish and luxuriously cast film adaptations continue to be shown in many a classroom. Last seen on stage in Shakespeare as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale in 2016 alongside Judi Dench, his star-director take on King Lear has long been inevitable, but what we get here, while enjoyable and accessible, can’t be considered in any way definitive.

The advance publicity photos of Branagh set up a stream of social media jokes about a ‘Centrist Dad’ Lear. In actuality, the production is set in prehistoric times; everyone is literally a spear carrier, swathed in sackcloths, embellished with furs and pelts for the higher-status characters. The action takes place in a swift two hours without an interval, scarcely pausing for breath – rather like an extended episode of Game of Thrones.

At 62, Branagh, who performs with some strange pauses and staccato intonations, seems a young Lear, though life expectancy in Shakespeare’s time was much lower than today, and in neolithic times, reaching 30 must have been an achievement.

There’s nothing physically frail about him; he looks hale and hearty with his leonine appearance and sumptuous head of hair, and has the opportunity to show that he is in excellent shape. He starts as a jovial father and displays a mercurial comic streak throughout (he'll never be able to entirely leave Hamlet behind).

Branagh surrounds himself with recent RADA graduates (his alma mater, of which he is president). On one hand, it’s good that he’s giving opportunities to young actors – who speak clearly, if not with absolute conviction or with the most distinctive characterisation – but it's a play that requires greater gravitas from experienced character actors (one can’t help but wonder if costs have something to do with the decision to cast it so young).

Jessica Revell, in her professional stage debut, is a sincere Cordelia and doubles as the Fool, whose childlike rapport with Lear provides the most heartfelt emotional moments. Cory Mylchreest, the production’s other ‘name’ (George III in Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story and also making his professional theatre debut), is a witty Edmund, and Melanie-Joyce Bermudez makes a fierce Regan.

Jon Bausor’s otherworldly set design features rugged stone pillars that fluidly move on- and offstage and an overhead discus evoking gaping heavens threatening to crash into the earth. Nina Dunn’s projections of the actors’ faces on the stones are very on-trend but not entirely necessary, while inventive choreography and fight direction by Aletta Collins and Bret Yount respectively replace swordplay for a spear ballet of sorts.

This is not a misfire like Branagh’s painfully hammy Poirot films (in which he serves as star and director), but nor does it have the thoughtfulness of his moving autobiographical film Belfast. Ultimately, it feels like a trial run and that Branagh’s Lear is still to come. It’s unlikely to happen, given his established working practices, but working with an outside director (or co-director) would be no bad thing.

King Lear is at the Wyndham's Theatre through 9 December.

Photo credit: King Lear (Photo by Johan Persson)

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