The stage at the Old Vic is being 'cleaned' as we take our seats and a few of the cast dressed in what looks like their regular street clothes amble around chatting. It is brightly lit and you can see spare lighting rigs at the side of the stage and there isn't much by way of set and props except a white screen and a row of cheap plastic chairs.
It feels like we've walked in on a rehearsal rather than a full blown production and this becomes a bit of problem once the play has started. While there are no scripts to be seen and the actors are definitely in full flow, the direction and sparseness of the stage make it feel, to use PolyG's words, like a glorified rehearsed reading.
After about an hour it kicks in although by that I mean it has its moments. Rhys Ifans lights up the stage as a super-hero costumed Fool although as a result his appearances feel all too brief. Harry Melling too feels compelling as Edgar in fact it is the scene where he sees his blinded father for the first time where I was most moved. It is interesting that director Deborah Warner has chosen to distinguish between Edgar and his brother Edmond (Simon Manyonda) by making one a fitness addict and the other a chocolate addict and it is the bad brother that is into exercise.
Jane Horrock's stalks the stage as the painted-on-jeans, high-heels wearing Regan and Sargon Yelda's Kent brilliantly switches between accents as his disguise which works really well.
But this is Glenda Jackson's show or at least it should be. She gives an energetic performance that belies her frail looking frame but it isn't enough to captivate and ultimately engage.
She is a bawdy King Lear, hanging out drinking with 'his' knights in fact this a bawdy production that crudely exposes the sexual innuendo and references. Bare flesh is exposed: Edmund bears his buttocks to the audience while masturbating over his plans to rob his brother of his inheritance, shirts are taken off for fights and and Edgar strips to his birthday suit and runs around, later wearing just plastic bags as pants (I noted the Lidl logo).
Plastic and plastic bags become a recurring motif in the production design as well as the costume. During the storm huge black plastic sheets are used as a back drop for rain projections and then a cave like shelter from the rain. Plastic bags are often carried by the 'deposed' court characters and at one point there is a shopping trolley.
There is an air of madness that pervades - not just when mad Tom is on the stage and Lear starts losing his marbles but in the behaviour of others - a desperation and franticness.
The stage has been built out so that row E in the stalls is at the front but the actors rarely come forward near the edge. It gives the play an aloofness and that perhaps contributes to the lack of emotional engagement I felt.
In the end you have some sexual tension, some plastic bags and some very erratic behaviour but I spent more time thinking about Jane Horrock's shoes and how shiny Glenda Jackson's hair was than what was going on with the text. It felt long, very long and under powered at times and I'm still none the wiser as to what Deborah Warner was trying to say with this particular production. Such a great cast, it feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.
It runs at the Old Vic until Dec 3 and I saw it in preview when it was 3 hours and 45 minutes but 15 minutes has since been shaved off the running time so maybe that has made a difference. There is one interval.
I'm giving it a generous three stars.