Review: King Lear at the Young Vic

Having received a critical drubbing at its opening in Liverpool (with even lead actor Pete Postlethwaite admitting it was a troubled production), the Headlong company’s King Lear comes to the Young Vic with something to prove. Has director Rupert Goold, previously feted for his stunning Macbeth, finally met his match with one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays?

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Thankfully not. They’ve gone back to the rehearsal room and responded to the critics, bringing an altered and improved piece to the London stage. It is still a flawed production in many ways – the scars of previous mistakes are still visible, and some of the weaknesses have proved uncorrectable or have passed unnoticed – but despite its occasional shaky moments it is carried through by the strength of the cast and the inventiveness of the staging.

Goold is a director with an effortless creativity. Although the design and setting is nothing so special (a dessicated 1980’s Britain), each scene is crafted to precision, from the witty (the athletic track where Edmund and Edgar compete for their father’s affection) to the bold (the final duel, boyish and brutal, between the two brothers), the simple (Lear and the Fool alone in the moonlight) to the macabre (a truly horrific, eyeball biting blinding scene). It is hard to fault the individual scenes; even where they fall a trifle flat (the risible storm dance being the most notable culprit here) the freshness and invention are notable.

But the production never quite achieves any kind of unified vision; themes are touched upon but left unexplored, and the staging veers from one style to another without warning. By all accounts, the play was far more chaotic when it opened in Liverpool, and it is a problem that has not quite been solved. It is all the more surprising from a director who provided such bold (and complete) visions for his previous Shakespearean productions – the arctic tundra of The Tempest, the Stalinist horror of Macbeth. Perhaps it is natural that a play with chaos at its very core should resist cohesive settings, but the production cries out for a stronger vision to draw it together – even chaos can be artfully and consistently composed on the stage.

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Wherever Goold’s invention dries up or is misapplied, however, the cast are there in force to carry the production through. King Lear, perhaps more than many other Shakespeare plays, requires exceptional performances from the entire cast. Almost a dozen different characters are asked to carry the play in turn for their small portion, and a production can be sunk by a dull Edgar, a hammy Edmund, a bland Goneril.

Fortunately, Goold is blessed with an ensemble that has strength in depth; among the best are Forbes Masson’s sinister Scottish Fool, John Shrapnel’s noble Gloucester, and a splendidly villainous turn from Jonjo O’Neil as Edmund. An unimposing Cordelia is perhaps the only weak link.

Attention will inevitably fall on Pete Postlethwaite, wrestling with one of Shakespeare’s most brilliant and challenging parts. He does not give an especially original interpretation of Lear, but he delivers most of the key scenes in standout form – the monologue to his daughters preceding his flight into the storm, his mournful conversation with Gloucester on the cliffs of Dover, the reconciliation with Cordelia and his speech as they are led away to imprisonment are by far the most moving scenes in the production, simply and beautifully played.

This production is not a perfect Lear. Perhaps it is not even a great one, but while it may still be flawed it is always bold, and often quite brilliant.


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