King Lear (Holy Trinity Church, Guildford)

Brian Blessed stars opposite his daughter in this adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy

Brian Blessed as King Lear
Brian Blessed as King Lear
© Guildford Shakespeare Company

Brian Blessed has climbed Everest, so there’s no reason why he shouldn’t play King Lear. Except for the fact that for all his physical power and vocal booming, he’s an explanatory actor, not a revelatory one. There are many fine details in his performance for the Guildford Shakespeare Company, but there is nothing seismic or "joined up" in the reading.

Even less so at Monday night’s preview, apparently, when he collapsed and fell off his throne in the first scene, thus abdicating before he’d even divided up the kingdom. But he carried on after twenty minutes ("Is there a doctor in the house?" was a new interpolation by the Earl of Kent) and was as robust at last night’s opening – onstage and off – as any hale and hearty 78 year-old could wish.

But this is a play fraught with frailty, as well as violence and bad feeling between the generations, and Blessed – who had a heart operation three years ago and is prone to minor fibrillation – must be doubly stressed and vulnerable because he’s playing opposite his own daughter, Rosalind Blessed, as Goneril, on whom he lays the deeply unpleasant sterility curse when she bans his followers from her house.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is, indeed, to have a thankless child. Blessed skirts round this, rather. Last year’s valedictory Lear, David Ryall at the Cockpit, at least took the precaution of casting his daughters as carers; one played a doctor, the other Cordelia, the favourite he’s banished but who returns to lend succour on his (and her) deathbed.

Not for the first time, Cordelia is here doubled with the Fool ("And my poor Fool is hanged") but Emily Tucker makes little of this overlap. The Fool’s part is cut to ribbons (the prophecy speech is used as an all-purpose chaos setting at the start) and she looks like a refugee from Rufus Norris‘s Cabaret in black titfer, thunder thighs and spangled hot pants.

The handsome Georgian church of Holy Trinity was built on a medieval site, which adds a charge of sorts to the superstitious paganism of the play. James Sobol Kelly‘s Gloucester is a Prospero-like astrologer, surrounded by books and charts in the pulpit. The stars themselves light up the church’s unsupported ceiling and Goneril is seen having sex with Oswald in a shadow play.

The staging in Caroline Devlin‘s production is rudimentary, but there are some good uncoordinated ideas, and the vivid Regan of Sarah Gobran, Kent of Noel White and resourceful "madman" Edgar of Matt Pinches more than pass muster.

Blessed does a giant sustained boom at one point (audiences of a nervous disposition should look away now), but his best moments are trippy-tongued and lightly, surprisingly tenor-ish, as in the reunion with Gloucester and the cradling of Cordelia; his four "howls" are rapidly whispered, his five "nevers" all but swallowed. But after all that’s happened, Lear, let alone Blessed, cannot be in his perfect mind.

King Lear is playing at the Holy Trinity Church in Guildford until 14 February. For more information and to book tickets click here. You can also read our exclusive interview with Brian Blessed here.