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King Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe

In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. This saying is very true but misses out on one thing. For most people, thanks to the wonders of medical science, before death comes old age and retirement. For the majority of people, this is a fairly easy time, when they can relax and reflect on their lives, spend time with their family and generally enjoy life. But if you are a monarch then there is the little matter of succession to be thought about. And the protagonist of William Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Globe has, they believe, worked out a foolproof plan.

King Lear - Credit Johan Persson
King Lear – Credit Johan Persson

The court of Lear (Kathryn Hunter) has gathered for an important announcement. The king has decided that in order to stop any problems of succession and allow them an opportunity to retire, they will divide the realm between their three daughters – Goneril (Ann Ogbomo), Regan (Marianne Oldham) and Cordelia (Michelle Terry). But this will not be a straight three-way split, for Lear’s daughters must justify their share by speaking words of love to the king. Whilst Goneril and Regan have no trouble, and return to their husbands, the Dukes of Albany (Glyn Pritchard) and Cornwall (Max Jax) respectively, with their lands allocated, Cordelia is unable to fulfil the King’s wishes and is disinherited by Lear, who splits the kingdom in two rather than three. Not only had she lost her inheritance but also Cordelia is now not as attractive as a wife to her two suitors, the Duke of Burgundy (Max Keeble) and the King of France (Emma Ernest). Whatever their personal feelings, none of the court questions the king’s actions with the exception of the Earl of Kent (Gabriel Akuwudike) who speaks out about the treatment of Cordelia and is punished for his impertinence. Another who is not happy with the king’s decisions is the Earl of Gloucester (Diego Matamoros) who that day has introduced Kent to his illegitimate son Edmund (Ryan Donaldson). While he has welcomed Edmund to family, the boy resents his status as a bastard who will not be able to inherit his father’s title unlike his older half-brother Edgar (Kwaku Mills). Lear, feeling they have done the right thing, announces that he, his fool, and his retinue will live alternately with each of his daughters, and believing that they are set for a peaceful and happy retirement, leaves the throne room happy and content. Oh, if only that were the case.

King Lear is a fascinating story because of its various machinations as the characters cheat, steal, lie and betray each other in the pursuit of power. Anyone that is familiar with the show Game of Thrones will definitely recognise the way the story is laid out. Just Remember Shakespeare did it first. It is also one of Shakespeare’s plays that can be used to prove a point. It’s a play about the abuse of power. It’s a feminist play. It’s a political play. Name the cause and King Lear can be used to support it.

The casting of a woman in the role of Lear in this production, which was first performed in 1997, has had both positive and negative reactions. Feminists love it and the anti-woke brigade are not keen. The reality is that the outward physical characteristics of the actor really don’t matter. All that matters is the ability to deliver a very complex role well. And Kathryn Hunter is superb. Lear is an odd character who draws out a range of emotions from the audience. They are sweet but vicious, assured but with doubts, frail but strong. With some of the best Shakespeare speeches both in terms of length and complexity, you find your feelings about Lear going all over the place, dislike, pity, annoyance, love, etc. Hunter brings some interesting elements of comedy into the performance and, indeed for a Shakespearean tragedy, there is quite a lot of humour in this interpretation of the play. This is especially true of Michelle Terry’s Fool. The one person that can be totally honest and open with the king, the Fool is a major part of the first act and Terry delivers a marvellous performance. My other favourite was Donaldson’s portrayal of Edmund. If you look at the play as a whole, Edmund is the only truly nasty character who is willing to sacrifice everyone and everything in his rise from mere bastard to the top of the aristocratic tree. He uses a mix of charm, ruthlessness, and personal charisma to achieve his aims and Donaldson really has all of these characteristics so that, no matter how bad Edmund gets, you still almost want to forgive him.

On the production side, the use of the musicians, not only for music but also for sound effects, is a nice touch that probably reflects how the original production would have sounded. According to the programme, the story is set in a ‘decaying modern society. The world we live in now’ and some of this is reflected in Hattie Barsby’s costumes which seem to be an eclectic mix of clothing from ages with ruffs and breastplates alongside leather jackets.

This version of King Lear uses virtually the entire original text – although there is a lot of discussion among scholars about what the original was – and is long. With a running time of over three hours, the Globe’s wooden benches can be a bit unforgiving on the buttocks, so I would definitely suggest investing in a cushion. Yes, the production is long, but the time flies by, especially in the first act because the show is very absorbing. Unlike some Shakespeare, there are no confusing elements to the narrative and the two stories (Lear and his daughters along with Gloucester and his sons) follow a course that makes sense and leads to a natural and understandable ending.

Overall, there is something very accessible about King Lear. It is a story of its time but also of all times. You only have to look at the politics in the world today to see Lear-type figures, secure in their power, making the wrong decisions while surrounded by those that would flatter them in the pursuit of their own advancement. Definitely a show to go and watch this summer.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

A family feud tears apart a kingdom in Shakespeare’s epic tragedy King Lear, in the Globe Theatre this Summer.

When the aged King relinquishes his empire, he divides it amongst his three daughters, promising the largest share to the one who professes to love him the most. But when the balance of power transfers to the next generation, Lear is cast out by those he trusts, embarking on a maddening quest for self-knowledge and reconciliation.

A nightmarish family drama of global proportions, King Lear forces us to face our own humanity and the profound need for compassion.

Twenty-five years after their original, ground-breaking production, internationally lauded Director, Helena Kaut-Howson, co-founder of theatre company Complicité, Marcello Magni, and ‘one of the greatest stage actors alive’ (Vanity Fair), Kathryn Hunter reunite to bring King Lear to a new generation. Kathryn reclaims the title role, with Artistic Director Michelle Terry as Cordelia and Fool.

Introducing the King Lear company & creatives
Gabriel Akuwudike – KENT
Ryan Donaldson – EDMUND
Kathryn Hunter – KING LEAR
Diego Matamoros – GLOUCESTER
Kwaku Mills – EDGAR
Ann Ogbomo – GONERIL / CURAN
Marianne Oldham – REGAN
Glyn Pritchard – ALBANY / OLD MAN
Michelle Terry – CORDELIA / LEAR’S FOOL

Assistant Director Naeem Hayat
Casting Becky Paris
Composer Claire van Kampen
Costume Supervisor Hattie Barsby
Creative Collaborator Marcello Magni
Designer Pawel Dobrzycki
Director Helena Kaut-Howson
Fight Associate Joseph Reed
Fight Director Rodney Cottier
Globe Associate – Movement Glynn MacDonald
Globe Associate – Text Giles Block
Globe Associate – Voice Tess Dignan
Movement Director Clive Mendus
Musician Adrian Woodward
Musician Beth Higham-Edwards
Musician Richard Henry
Musician Sarah Homer

King Lear
The Globe
19 JUNE – 24 JULY 2022

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