Theatre Review: King Lear at the Young Vic

By Zoe Craig Last edited 116 months ago
Theatre Review: King Lear at the Young Vic

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Amanda Hale (Cordelia) and Pete Postlethwaite (Lear). Photo by Stephen Vaughan

Oscar-nominated Pete Postlethwaite plays Lear under hot young director Rupert Goold (his Macbeth won awards, you know) as part of Liverpool08: how exciting? Imagine the swell of anticipation on learning they're bringing the whole thing to London's Young Vic too.Goold has made his name taking traditional texts and revamping them brilliantly. Pirandello, Pinter and the Bard have felt the effects, and taken the rewards. What was he going to do, we were eager to know, alongside the remarkable Postlethwaite, with Shakespeare's mighty tragedy of old age and disintegration?Well, like the doddery King of the well-studied play, Goold's cleft his kingdom in three. His Lear emerges as a tough-to-watch, fractured production; with a start time of 7.15pm, and two intervals thrown into the mix, this is a long old night.As Goold has said, his is a domestic Lear. It's also momentarily absurd, sometimes great, and occasionally tedious. It's a Lear of odd extremes. Our Pete croons snatches of My Way into a microphone at the opening party, dressed in an unremarkable brown 70s suit. The evil daughters, Goneril and Regan (Caroline Faber and Charlotte Randle, both excellent), wear some fantastically vampy heels while they torment their father. Gangsters and football hooligans fill the rest of the gaps; sometimes you get the feeling they're all in different plays.Postlethwaite's performance is as good, but not as breathtaking as we'd hoped. Starting the show with a homely, self-indulgent birthday party gives Pete's Lear no kingly qualities, no grandeur, no patriarchal dignity, nothing against which to judge his later sad demise. So the demise isn't very sad. Goold, we're afraid, has deprived a National Treasure of a proper stab at tragedy.Later, when a gun-and-bouquet-toting Cordelia emerges from below the stage to the sounds of a helicopter, you can't help but wonder if there's madness somewhere other than in the King's "bald crown".The whole show smacks of a drama school performance, where this year's star pupil drew the short "Director" straw, and in a pique, enforced his personality on the whole thing. There are so many excellent performances (Forbes Masson's Fool is breathtaking, as is Tobias Menzies as Edgar) all eager to show their range, their regional accent, their clever characterisation, but there's absolutely no sense of ensemble. (When the characters don't seem to care for each other, how can we care for them?)Then, while these excellent actors rehearsed, someone's run around the "Props and Ideas Cupboard" and come out with loads of "stuff" that they've thrown at the stage. Plastic swords? We'll use 'em! Machine guns, pistols or knives? Bring 'em all! This flowery dress? Put it on Pete! Paint our faces with the St George's Cross? Yeah! What about a pram? Yep! Got any fake blood? And so on.(The squeamish among you be warned: an audience member very nearly fainted when Regan bit, then spat out Gloucester's eyes last night. Yum.)We can't help but wonder if some of the older chaps in the cast (PP as Lear, John Shrapnel as Gloucester, Nigel Cooke as Kent), having scored parts in the play of a lifetime, are a bit disappointed with the outcome. Perhaps that's where the tragedy lies.King Lear plays at the Young Vic until 28 March. Tickets £22.50; £10 for Under 26 (including students). Box Office: +44 (0)20 7922 2922

Last Updated 05 February 2009