Review: Kenneth Branagh's King Lear, Wyndhams Theatre - pacey, fresh and youthful production sometimes loses its heart
I'm calling this production the Wildling King Lear. The costumes, which involved fur and animal skins, lots of belts and tunics, reminded me of the tribe in Game of Thrones.
It's possibly not what Kenneth Branagh was going for in this production in which he stars and directs, or maybe it was because there is something tribal in its tone.
Sharpened staffs are the weapons of choice and an instrument to stamp the ground in an approving or threatening manner.
The stage is wrapped in a semi-circle of large flat stones. These stones, coupled with a doughnut-shaped disc hanging above the stage, are a palette onto which planets, the moon, clouds and sometimes faces of characters are projected.
It enhances the otherworldly/ancient England feel, which is probably why the doughnut when lit a certain way, reminded me of another fictional reference: The Eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings.
When we first meet King Lear, staffs are held aloft to make a canopy above his head, and for a moment, he looks up to where they all connect—a symbolic and ironic gesture, knowing what will happen next.
Branagh's production is an extremely pacey 2 hours straight through (King Lear normally clocks in at over 3 hours). It satisfyingly zips through the story with enough to give you the gist.
You do lose some of the subtle detail and character development in not dwelling, which makes some characters appear overly fickle in their choices.
Among Branagh's relatively young cast - some making their stage debut - he's chosen to gender-swap a couple of key roles.
Eleanor de Rohan plays a feisty yet wise Kent, and Jessica Revell plays The Fool and Cordelia. It is a nice choice to have the same person play the two characters who don't flatter and speak the truth to the King.
It also means the father-daughter bond is replicated in the King and Fool, and it sharpens the sense of injustice in how Lear listens to his Fool but not his daughter.
This is also a Lear where the sharp wit of Shakespeare's writing is drawn out - there were more chuckles than you'd normally expect from King Lear. Corey Mylchreest's Edmund has excellent comic timing and has shades of a comic-book villain.
Branagh's Lear is vain and borderline flamboyant at times with his bouffant hair (which felt a little out of place among the 'Wildlings'). His petulant mood swings give an air of danger that rapidly loses traction as his power diminishes.
It's an engaging performance in that he plays with your loyalties, but the final scene with Cordelia doesn't quite tug the heartstrings as it so often can.
This youthful cast (and relatively youthful Lear) gives the play a different energy to more typical productions which, combined with the setting, gives it a freshness. And I liked it for that.
But its pace was sometimes alienating, which resulted in it losing some emotional connection.
I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
King Lear, Wyndhams Theatre
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Kenneth Branagh
Running time 2 hours without an interval
Booking until 9 December, visit the Wyndhams web page for more details and tickets, including front-row day seat and ticket lottery.
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