Kenneth Branagh directs and stars as Shakespeare’s mentally deteriorating King, in a tense two-hour production that feels like Lear on speed. Branagh puts Lear against the backdrop of Viking England, with the fur of beasts making the clothes, sticks as swords and bare hands gouging out eyes. The set allowed for minimal props and scenery focussing the attention of the audience on the words. When dealing with Shakespeare this is a safe thing to do as it’s some of the best language ever written but one likes to hear it in its undiluted glory.
This production disappointed primarily due to Branagh’s heavy cutting of the text and his portrayal of Lear, as if it were another role he wanted to tick off the list.
The play was cut significantly to achieve the strict two-hour running time. An intensity of action could be taken as a positive in some productions, but sadly not in this case. All the play’s main events were crammed together and the transitions between scenes were overly fast. A casualty of this is the famous scene “we’ll go away to prison” coming and going in an instant, leaving the audience both disappointed they couldn’t see the scene in its beautiful entirety and confused as to why Branagh had chosen to do that.
Branagh’s Lear is lacklustre and only exists on one level, and sadly we didn’t see the full journey of emotions that Lear experiences as his mind begins to decline. Dubbed as the “hardest role in Shakespeare” by some critics because of the emotional and physical demands it was disappointing to see Kenneth not take full advantage of the opportunity to tackle this part. The heavy cuts and fast scene changes restricted him from bringing him fully to life and I only saw Ken Branagh rather than King Lear. I was reminded of Richard Eyre’s 2018 television adaptation of the play starring Anthony Hopkins, the difference between the two leading actors is staggering. Hopkins had the visceral, powerful, heart-breaking descent into madness, Branagh had a stick and a long beard. As a member of the audience said at the end of the play, “this is like Branagh ticking the King Lear box, just to say he’s done it”. There was a feeling that Branagh assumed his audiences know the play already, so he had the freedom to do what he wanted, and it didn’t work.
Overall, a disappointing take on one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Visually and aurally a spectacle, but sadly that’s as far as the compliments go.
King Lear runs at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 9th December, 50 performances only.