From Ian McKellen to Derek Jacobi, the late Pete Postlethwaite to Tim Pigott-Smith, the last five years haven’t exactly stinted British theatre-goers for high-profile King Lears, a testament both to the enduring power of one of Shakespeare’s most gruelling and gripping tragedies and to the eagerness of veteran actors to get the role under their belts while they’re still physically capable of lugging Cordelia around the stage. Now, pre-empting Simon Russell Beale’s rumoured production with Sam Mendes, it’s the turn of the excellent Jonathan Pryce to venture out onto the heath, in a fine production by Michael Attenborough that makes up in focus, clarity and intimacy what it lacks in apocalyptic vision.
Indeed, Attenborough’s approach to the play is determinedly unfussy. The storm scene is simply staged - smoke and a few sound effects, no water as drenched poor Oliver Ford Davies’s Lear for the Almeida ten years ago - and the overall look is low-key: Tom Scott’s set and costumes could have come directly from a BBC Shakespeare circa 1976. Still, having been somewhat under-whelmed by Nicholas Hytner’s strenuously modern, straining-for-relevance Timon of Athens at the NT just the other day, Attenborough’s gimmick-free take felt extremely refreshing to me. The focus is firmly on character and relationships here, rather than an overriding “concept,” and the production puts some striking spins on the protagonists. A few of these do feel a tad forced: Richard Goulding’s highly engaging Edgar - a character more usually found with his nose in a book, prior to his Poor Tom transformation - is here introduced indulging in a hearty spot of servant-snogging, while the Lear-as-sexual-abuser card gets played for the first time in a while, and to little effect.
Other elements work beautifully, though. Phoebe Fox makes something original and unsentimental of Cordelia, giving the character a combative, steely resolve that melts movingly in the reconciliation scene with Lear; she’s a study of goodness without a hint of sweetness. Kieran Bew - last seen gracing the Almeida stage as the dumbass Kent in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty - renders a gorgeously amused and cocksure Edmund (the play’s best role, IMHO!). Bew makes the character’s villainy entirely winning; he gets an audience-rapport going from his opening soliloquy and sustains it up to the character’s final (wonderful!) moment of repentance. Jenny Jules and Zoe Waites offer well-drawn takes on Regan and Goneril, and Ian Gelder’s faithful, stoic Kent and Clive Wood’s moving Gloucester are equally fine.
And Pryce himself delivers a marvellously compelling quicksilver turn. A more agile, robust Lear than many, he puts fascinating twists on the most familiar speeches, subverting sentimentality at every turn, whether by ripping savagely into “Reason not the need!” or undercutting the “great stage of fools” speech with ironic sermonizing. Everything he does feels fresh, alive, spontaneous. His moments of tender connection with Gelder and Wood win through to genuine emotion, and his connection with Trevor Fox’s Fool - whose riddling speeches come accompanied by magic tricks, and who’s capable of cracking Lear up even when he's at his most enraged or despairing - is beautifully done. Attenborough takes the action at a fair clip, and locates the black comedy in the play’s bleakness without overselling it. The evening has both pace and feeling. Those who like their Lears wilder - or more high-concept - may not be stirred, but this was, for me, a terrific night in the theatre, and by far the strongest production I’ve seen at the Almeida this year.