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Theatre review: King Lear at Almeida Theatre

PUBLISHED: 11:12 19 September 2012

Chook Sibtain (Cornwall), Jenny Jules (Regan), Jonathan Pryce (King Lear), Zoe Waites (Goneril) and Richard Hope (Albany) in King Lear, Almeida Theatre. Photo Keith Pattison

Chook Sibtain (Cornwall), Jenny Jules (Regan), Jonathan Pryce (King Lear), Zoe Waites (Goneril) and Richard Hope (Albany) in King Lear, Almeida Theatre. Photo Keith Pattison

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Jonathan Pryce shines in Michael Attenborough’s fast-paced production at the Almeida

» Jonathan Pryce wowed Almeida audiences last time he was here, playing a middle-aged dad who falls madly in love with a goat (in Edward Albee’s play The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?) Here he shines again, in the ultimate play about tragic family troubles and madness.

Unusually for Shakespeare’s bleakest work, Michael Attenborough’s fast-paced production has the audience chuckling in the aisles at times. The eye-gouging scene is particularly gross, though.

Pryce gives a delicate portrayal of the infirm old man. In lesser productions, Lear’s howls and ravings often steal the show, giving the audience a collective nervous breakdown in the process. But here Attenborough lavishes attention on other characters and sub-plots too. The funny Geordie Fool (Trevor Fox), Edgar/the naked man (Richard Goulding) and Edmund the bastard (Kieran Bew) all stick out memorably.

There’s a general lightness of tone, so for example chatter about the fateful, catastrophic gods and planets is jokily ironic, even glib, rather than dour and fearful.

Pryce is often (but not always) soft-spoken, mild-mannered, avuncular. He convincingly teases out the Lear-as-victim side to the character, the man “more sinned against than sinning” – even though he never quite becomes endearing. It’s hard to forget that this is the evil lunatic who just booted out his ‘good’ daughter, Cordelia, while embracing her ‘evil’ sisters, Goneril and Regan (impressively played by Zoe Waites and Jenny Jules).

But Pryce’s king may have even darker, more stomach-churning secrets to hide. I’ve never before seen him forcibly snog Goneril: a leering Lear. And unlike many productions which chart his descent into madness, this Lear is clearly bonkers from the start.

We feel close to this family drama in the Almeida’s intimate space, and the stone set – a mouldy old castle, or disused warehouse – is an effective backdrop that combines well with thunderous sound and lighting effects. Designer Tom Scutt says he aimed for a timeless vibe; his costumes are half-medieval, half Mad Max.

Many timeless moments to enjoy in this version may surprise you, aside from the main drama: references to worthless lawyers’ advice, lying politicians, and even the insult “you base footballer,” which got the biggest laugh of the night.

* King Lear is at Almeida Theatre in Almeida Street, N1, until November 3. Box office 020 7359 4404

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