"Be like a scurvy politician and seem to see the things thou dost not" exhorts Lear to Gloucester. But in Jonathan Kent's new production at the old coach station that serves as a temporary home for the Almeida, it is Lear himself who cannot see, as his self-awareness crumbles and his carefully built up image of himself is stripped away.
There's an impressive start. Paul Brown's set encloses the vast space of the theatre and serves as television studio as Lear prepares to make a broadcast. Right from the outset, the two daughters put on a false act as they preen and pose in front of the camera It's a measure of Cordelia's honesty that she refuses to go before the lights to say her piece. But once Lear realises how he was mistaken about his daughters, it's his own image that he attacks, as he batters his reflection in a mirror.
And as Lear's world crumbles around him so too does the set (quite literally) as the storm renders the grand house to ruin. This does lead to some unwontedly comic effects, as Lear and his party shelter under a writing desk, supposedly in the middle of a rain-swept heath. The second half of the play uses the full expanse of the theatre, although some of the more intimate scenes are overshadowed by the vastness of the stage.
Oliver Ford Davies is a fine Lear, a beautifully spoken king who captures well the rage and bewilderment of his situation. His is a Lear for a television age: where image is all. Once stripped of his accoutrements and symbols of kingly power (and probably his spin doctors), he's forced to confront reality.
There are good performances too from Suzanne Burden and Lizzy McInnerney as Goneril and Regan, two house-proud ladies barely able to comprehend the havoc that their father is bringing to their homes. Elsewhere, solid support is offered by Paul Shelley's Albany, Paul Jesson's Kent and David Ryall's old buffer of a Gloucester. And Tom Hollander turns in a nicely judged Edgar, managing the transformation from upper-class fop to mad beggar to action hero most effectively.
One of the main problems is James Frain's Edmund. One of the dullest and uncharismatic portrayals that I've ever seen, this bastard son is far from being the catalyst for villainy in the play. Frain's Edmund would seem to have problems causing mischief at an accountancy convention.
All in all, Kent's final Almeida production is simply too uneven. In a way, the e expanse of the set itself is the biggest stumbling block, but there are other difficulties. By Lear standards, it's a very short production (just over three hours), and such brevity sacrifices some of the complexity of the journey from reason to madness and back again. It's almost as if this televisually-aware Lear wants to deal only in sound-bites and the full richness of the text is swallowed up.