I was excited to finally see Kenneth Branagh in King Lear at Wyndham’s Theatre last night, having booked months ago. I last saw him live in a Shakespeare play (Hamlet) in 1992, so was nostalgic about his return to the boards.
The production is set in ancient Britain and the action cut down to two hours (without an interval). I loved Jon Bausor’s set and costume design, with a gigantic eye hovering over the action. There is so much eye imagery in the play and the subtle use of projection and lighting changed its appearance, making it look at times as if it was full of tears (“As pearls from diamonds dropp’d”). On other occasions it looked more like the eye of Gloucester’s pitiless gods: who “kill us for their sport”. And just before the scene where Gloucester is blinded, the eye turned into a total eclipse.
Branagh’s young cast was excellent, with particularly enjoyable performances from Joseph Kloska (Gloucester) and Doug Colling (Edgar). As for Branagh himself, he was charismatic but perhaps a little too energetic to fully capture the bleakness of Shakespeare’s conception. He emphasised the humour of some lines (I have never heard an audience laugh so often in King Lear) and he looked, well, young. It was difficult to believe that he was either a “foolish, fond old man” or physically broken.
Yet some of his directorial decisions were inspired, and the production came across with an almost filmic energy. I was impressed by the decision to put the auditorium into darkness during Gloucester’s words immediately following his blinding (there had been some jigging of the text to make this a transitional point). King Lear is a play partly about empathy, so it felt right to put us directly into Gloucester’s shoes.
Because of the cuts, the action seemed sped-up as it reached its close, with the consequences of Lear’s capricious treatment of his daughters crashing in on us at alarming speed. Some of the subtleties of Edgar’s character were lost, but this is perhaps inevitable, given the time constraints of a live performance. Branagh’s cuts, as well as his acting, also raised for me a central question about the play, namely, how nihilistic is it? His Lear is a man who grasps at straws of hope and learns true compassion in the end.
This article is dedicated to the memories my former literature lecturer, Bill Hughes, and the theatre historian, Robert D. Hume. “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.”