Many great artists tackle Lear every year. From Laurence Olivier and Michael Gambon to Ian McKellen and Simon Russell Beale, it’s become something of a tradition for dramatic actors to take on one of Shakespeare’s greatest challenges once their hair begins to turn gray.
Less often, an actress enters the scene with huge success. Glenda Jackson did it last in a star performance on Broadway in 2019, but Kathryn Hunter takes back the miserable crown after her first stint as a destitute monarch 25 years ago.
His portrayal is less of an old man who cries cloud and more of an eccentric ruler who traumatizes his daughters and then goes crazy. The production survived numerous setbacks with director Helena Kaut-Howson involved in a car accident two weeks before opening, Marcello Magni having to step down from the role of Kent (but remaining as a creative collaborator) and a few performances canceled. .
A King is ready to share his land between his three children and this sharing will depend on their declarations of love. Goneril and Regan flatter him with flowery speeches, but when it comes time for Cordelia, she doesn’t have much to say.
Enraged by the betrayal of his favorite child, Lear disinherits and banishes her alongside the Earl of Kent, who has sided with him. Once they got what they wanted, Goneril and Regan can no longer deal with their relative’s erratic behavior and turn him away from their home. Chaos ensues, families are fractured, the kingdom is on the brink of civil war, and no one lives happily ever after.
Kaut-Howson’s vision King Lear is of faded grandeur. An empty throne with a golden cape draped over its back greets the crowd as musicians entertain them. Once the opulent painted backdrop opens, Lear’s entourage pushes Hunter into a wheelchair while a marching band plays.
While she is tiny and diminished in the royal seat, her presence is spectacular. White hair and a curved, lame figure, she presents an unreasonable, brash and androgynous Lear. The chair is always at hand and his cane is mostly wielded furiously against the weather and scornfully against his dissenters.
Ann Ogbomo is Goneril and Marianne Oldham is Regan. One stately and majestic, the other delightfully strategic and ruthless. They cultivate the relationship between Lear’s eldest daughters with subtle sweetness, establishing a sisterhood that is ultimately shattered by jealousy and miscommunication.
They resent Cordelia’s place as the jewel in their father’s crown, and while they don’t seem bothered by her outbursts of rage and irrationality, they are deeply upset by their results. While Ogbomo is an exceptionally controlled Goneril, Oldham finds a Regan much closer to his father’s senseless outbursts, which becomes especially evident during the interrogation and sadistic blindness of Gloucester (Diego Matamoros).
They are joined by the artistic director herself, Michelle Terry, as the youngest daughter and committed to ethics. Terry also plays the madman in a fascinating double cast as Lear’s most beloved companions. His crazy takes over in Joker-ish make-up, wearing silly tunes and twittering prophecies alongside damning observations of her character.
Lear’s court, steeped in so many undertones of betrayal, sees a magnetic Hozier-looking Edmund in Ryan Donaldson, who steals the stage, dominating the Dukes and Earls with natural charisma.
It’s a fairly didactic production that doesn’t stray too far from the idea of King Lear. However, it leans a bit more on the comedic side, both in its emphasis on the text and in the delivery. Max Keeble appears as the main comic relief, clutching his glasses while getting kicked as Burgundy and Oswald.
Hunter, too, is a freakishly funny Lear. Her “Blow, winds” speech – played after company members move the props around as if driven by the wind – is quite a comedic struggle as she leans against an impalpable wind. She and Terry are nearly immobilized and slowly descend the stage, Hunter threatening the gods with his cane.
The musicians act like the storm, beating percussion as they probably would have done in Shakespeare’s time. Although it is a rather traditional piece, the frame is still very wide. Pawel Dobrzycki covers much of the Globe’s iconic wood with rusty iron beams and fabrics – perhaps hinting at some sort of impending industrial revolution.
This is what Kaut-Howson boils down to, a battle between generations and a struggle for progress. The characters all have a distinctive color-coding style, especially the girls. The costumes weave together ambiguous period elements such as ruffs, breastplates and capes with more modern costumes and clothing (Goneril’s outfits are dreamy!).
It’s long King Lear, striking at more than three o’clock including an intermission. It has its exciting moments as well as its lulls, but the performances alone are worth sinking into the horribly uncomfortable wooden benches of the Globe for so long.
King Lear is filming at Shakespeare’s Globe until July 24.