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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

King Lear, Almeida Theatre London

Powerful, angry performances hold together Yaël Farber’s sprawling, bleak vision of a king and his country in terminal decline in King Lear at Almeida Theatre, London.

Nasty, brutish and punishingly protracted, Yaël Farber’s take on Shakespeare’s gripping tragedy drives home the play’s brutality with the piercing force of a knife driven through an eyeball.

Setting the action in an unspecified modern nation, Farber depicts a world starved of kindness and inured to cruelty. There is a disturbingly matter-of-fact quality to the violence here: servants resignedly cover the furniture with tarpaulin as they prepare to blind Gloucester.

More warlord than king, Danny Sapani is a ferocious, belligerent Lear, seemingly always moments away from a furious outburst even before his sanity unravels. He retains his arrogance and pride as he sinks into destitution. It is only towards the show’s end that all the rage and menace drain out of him, and his booming voice fades to a desperate whimper.

Raised in Lear’s tyrannical shadow, it seems entirely plausible that his daughters depose him the instant he shows weakness. Thoughtful, nuanced performances give each daughter her own survival strategy: as Goneril, Akiya Henry is calculating and cold, while Faith Omole’s Regan flatters, her false smiles hiding a streak of opportunistic viciousness. And Gloria Obianyo’s Cordelia is a tough, focused presence, revealing little emotion in public but brimming with tears in private. In the aftermath of the play’s most shocking moment, Obianyo delivers a soulful lament, demonstrating a powerful, emotive singing voice.

 Elsewhere, Clarke Peters gives a magnetic, scene-stealing performance as the Fool. Heavily implied to be a creation of Lear’s tormented psyche, he paces mechanically around the fringes of the stage, growling out his barbed quips in a magnificent, resonant voice.

Lee Curran’s precise lighting divides the space into zones of warm amber and cold teal, delineating interior and exterior locations and singling out characters as privileged or outcast. In the show’s latter half, the lighting become increasingly stark, so that many of the final scenes play out under cold grey spotlights that reduce figures to silhouettes bracketed by darkness.

Merle Hensel’s stark set features great curtains of chain mail that billow and thrash around during the storm scene, creating dramatic waveforms like sheets of heavy rain. Gradually, the austere, minimalist interior of the palace gives way to a blasted, apocalyptic landscape littered with rubbish. Heaps of black soil are emptied out on to the polished floor, tatty plastic sheets unfurl and a tractor tyre rolls mournfully across the stage. Matching this decline, Lear becomes increasingly dishevelled scene by scene, ending up in stained underpants and a ragged flower crown that sheds petals as he slumps, defeated, from one humiliation to the next.

All these vivid images serve to establish an enervating mood of abject, inescapable misery. Unrelentingly grim as it is, Farber’s vision accurately reflects our compassionless times.

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