King Lear at the Almeida Theatre – review

Yaël Farber directs Shakespeare’s tragedy

Akiya Henry, Danny Sapani and Faith Omole, © Marc Brenner

“Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.”  Yael Farber’s production of King Lear begins with a succession of scenes that sum up the clarity of her line through the play’s tangled world of broken, unnatural relationships. Here is Lear, embodied by Danny Sapani, taking off a crisp, white shirt already revealing the bare forked man beneath.

Nearby stands Clarke Peters as the Fool, holding an umbrella, a watchful presence. The stage is dark and smoky. Low music plays. As Sapani pulls on a smart, blue suit, his daughters – Cordelia, Goneril and Regan – attend him like handmaidens, helping him into his jacket, lacing his shoes.  He makes his announcement about the division of his kingdom through a ring of echoing microphones.

His authority is obvious; but so is his anger. When Cordelia says she can say nothing, there’s a menacing pause before Sapani repeats the word. “Nothing can come of nothing.” His rage is ferocious, scattering courtiers and his daughters. They cling together for comfort; such outbursts are clearly not unusual at the Lear family home. Gloria Obianyo’s direct Cordelia may stand apart from his sisters’ hypocrisy, but her experience is the same.

When Fra Fee’s swaggering, charismatic Edmund appears, there’s the same careful attention to detail. As he sings Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Goin’ to Fall” to his tentative brother Edgar (Matthew Tennyson), the bond between them is clear; it makes all Edmund’s subsequent betrayals all the more shocking.

The whole production seems to be built on this sense of kinship and understanding as well as the order torn apart.  Sapani is a towering Lear, beautifully finding his way through the lines, belligerent but troubled from the start by a sense that he might just have made the worst mistake of his life. His relationship with Fool, endowed with supernatural qualities and played with gentle solemnity and quiet understanding by Peters, sits at the heart of the play.

Padding around the space like a ghost, Peters mirrors his master’s movements as well as offering an inner commentary on his mood.  The relationship between wisdom and foolishness is constantly examined by their conversations. Something vital feels at play. It’s a revelatory approach, yielding compelling insights into both character and theme.

It’s matched by Merle Hansel’s dirt-covered set, surrounded by an arc of metal beads, which creates an ambivalent atmosphere of strangeness, of beauty fashioned from the ugly, of violence brought into the domestic. Under Lee Curran’s lighting and with Peter Rice’s soundscape augmented by Max Perryment’s score played live on scraping violins, the storm scene is loud and violent, with a tractor tyre and a tent of recycled plastic providing shelter for Lear and his battered entourage.

Plastic comes into play too when Michael Gould’s fussy bureaucratic Gloucester is blinded, covering the furniture as his eyes are gouged out by Faith Omole’s increasingly unhinged Regan and her ferocious husband Cornwall (Edward Davis).

Each detail of the production feels meant and a terrific cast wrench sense from each fluctuation of character but there is there is a price to be paid for such a deliberate approach. This is a long evening and as it loses some control when the Fool vanishes in the second half, it begins to feel longer. Oddly, the first two-hours have cast such a spell that you almost feel you could reach the end without an interval.

Compared with Kenneth Branagh’s Lear late last year, which raced through the text with terrible loss of meaning, the density of Farber’s approach pays dividends. At the close, she returns us to an image of families cradling people they love in their arms, brothers, sisters, daughters. The Fool returns to watches on. It’s the closing of a circle as old as time, one destined to repeat.