Review: King Lear (Shakespeare's Globe)

Nancy Meckler directs the final Shakespeare in Emma Rice’s last summer season in charge of the Globe

In her last summer season at the Globe, Emma Rice is standing by her experimental principles and enlisting director Nancy Meckler to bring her distinctive style to Shakespeare‘s greatest tragedy.

Meckler is best known for her 20-year tenure as artistic director of Shared Experience, a company that blends physical and text-based theatre. And her approach to Lear is no different.

The play’s opening sequence shows Goneril and Regan’s political marriages, and Cordelia’s refusal to follow suit, through physical theatre alone, accompanied by the ensemble’s on-stage musicians. And throughout the play, the beating of a drum sees the cast drop out of naturalism into more expressive movements or tableaux.

It’s not for everyone – while Meckler believes we can 'start from the physical to get at the essence of what’s happening to a character', I found these moments wrenched me frustratingly out of my empathy.

But Meckler is as wise as she is visionary. Perhaps so as not to alienate, she keeps the pure physical theatre to a minimum, and instead drives her body-meets-text sensibilities into vigorous and precise direction. The result is an unlocking of every last nuance of Shakespeare’s text – the sublime imagery of universal loss, the pity of madness, and the play’s comic potential.

In fact, this is one of the funniest Lears I’ve seen, and the roundly talented cast must take equal credit for this. With supreme timing and linguistic agility, they find light in the most desperate situations, all the while maintaining that oppressive cloud of hopelessness that hangs over this punishingly bleak text.

Particularly impressive are Ralph Davis as Edmund – a natural with the text, whose cruelty is disquietingly offset by charm – and Joshua James, who imbues Edmund’s half-brother Edgar with a Mr Bean-like physicality that is by turns hilarious and pitiful.

As for Lear himself, Kevin R McNally is brilliant – a commanding, energetic presence who swings between wrath, pain and humour with unnerving ease. Physically imposing, his body crumbles later than other Lears I’ve seen, which only serves to intensify our pity when the moment comes. And his attempt to exert control over his madness by playing the knowing fool only makes his eventual demise more heartbreaking.

The play’s staging challenges are pulled off simply and elegantly. The storm is a swirl of drumming and flashing lights, and Dover’s cliffs are conjured with only the imaginations and physical adroitness of the cast.

The rest of the set is sparse – an abandoned house that the ensemble, like a group of squatters, breaks into during the opening scene and slowly reveals throughout the play, as they remove plastic sheets to uncover marble columns and grand balconies. It’s an interesting choice, and one that is too lightly explored to offer any definitive subtext. But I like to think of it as an antidote to the play's loss and destruction. As Lear, post-bow, triumphantly reveals the final column and the cast gathers their belongings and moves on cheering, it feels as if love and care have won at least one battle. Amongst the destruction, something has been restored.

King Lear runs at Shakespeare's Globe until 14 October.