Acclaimed actress Kathryn Hunter made history in 1997 when she became the first female to play the ill-fated King Lear in Britain, and now she reunites with director Helena Kaut-Howson to retell the tragedy for 2022.
It’s long considered an epic commentary on age amongst other things, and while I was not around to witness the previous staging and thus compare between the two, it’s still nonetheless difficult to ascertain exactly what point this re-staging is making, besides the obvious passage of time since Hunter last took on the role.
She is nonetheless as captivating as ever, of course. She plays a wide-eyed Lear ready to soak up the learnings which come from losing his kingdom and later, his sanity. Performances across the cast are commendable, with Gabriel Akuwudike playing a joyfully rebellious Kent, and Kwaku Mills comes into his own as an Edgar desperate for something to hold on to, fully embracing the dramatic hyperbole of Shakespeare. Equally, for a play so bleak, everyone delivers the many barbed insults contained within it with such sharp, cutting precision. There’s no denying that this King Lear is finely acted.
Yet, the play lacks pace against a 190-minute running time. Tragically, director Kaut-Howson was involved in a car accident two weeks before King Lear’s opening, leading to the cast and crew pushing ahead with staging the play in her absence as she recovers from the incident.
The feat resulting from dogged teamwork is nothing short of remarkable, but regrettably, one feels a director was required to tighten up scenes, and greater emphasise the themes which struggled to come to the fore. Case in point, designer Pawel Dobrzycki has done little to the Globe’s staging beyond erecting rusty metal scaffolding which is covered behind a cloak showing the more golden and marbled design with which we are all familiar – a nod to royal façades, perhaps, or a decaying mind, but such a metaphor is underdeveloped.
The acting in this King Lear is the play’s strongest point, but deeper engagement with the play’s politics would make this epic worth the while – not least in the current heatwave.
King Lear is now playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until 24 July. Audio described, captioned, relaxed and British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performances will take place on 10, 14, 16 and 24 July respectively.
Production Images: Johan Persson.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘King Lear’ for free in exchange for a review of the press night performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.