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A CurtainUp London London Review
King Lear

When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools:
--- Lear

 King Lear
Oliver Ford-Davies as Lear
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
It has been a glittering decade for Jonathan Kent and his joint artistic director, Ian McDiarmid at London's fashionable Islington theatre, the Almeida, but like all good things, it has to come to an end. Last week McDiarmid won the Theatre Critics' Circle award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Teddy in Brian Friel's The Faith Healer. This week, Jonathan Kent opens his last production, that old man of old men plays, King Lear.
When I heard that Kent was to direct Shakespeare's play (with the Duke of Kent in it), I assumed that the eponymous role would be taken by his theatrical partner, McDiarmid. I was surprised when it was announced that it would be Oliver Ford-Davies, a fine English actor and a brilliant timer of comic moments, but not, in my opinion, a great tragedian. My rule of thumb is that great Hamlets will make great Lears. The production sadly fulfilled my expectations and made this overblown production as much overdressed ugly duckling as swansong.

The gob smacking (mouth dropping) start to the play is the wooden panelled set, which covers all of the stage area and extends its panelled walls and ceiling out into the auditorium at the old bus garage in King's Cross where the Almeida has its temporary home, pending the rebuilding of the Islington theatre. The effect is to enclose us all in Lear's world. With the elegant furniture and blazing coal fire in fireplace, it looks like a five star hotel, expensive but anonymous. Pacing one of the rugs is a blonde in a little black dress, cigarette holding Goneril (Suzanne Burden). Up and down she goes like a caged lioness, relentlessly, only deviating from her path to use the ashtray and light another cigarette.

I think Kent has tried to balance the production by giving the sisters reason to throw out their father by making him behave appallingly. So, Lear tears the electric lamp fittings from the wall and crashes them into a large mirror in a rage. The theme maybe, is that Lear is suffering from senile dementia and is the cause for his elder daughter's behaviour, but this fails to convince one that Goneril and Regan (Lizzy McInnerny) would have acted any better given a more reasonable parent. The flaw with this approach is that it leaves Lear nowhere to go when he is on the blasted heath and madness is meant to strike along with the lightning. The impression one is left with is of Ford-Davies angry and shouting for most of the play. It is only when he holds Cordelia's body before his own death that there's aa glimpse of an extra dimension to his portrayal of this sad old man.

I liked Tom Hollander's intelligent Edgar and Mad Tom. David Ryall's kindly Duke of Gloucester, an echo of the foolish father that is Lear, was pitiful, although Edmund's villainy seemed played down in this production. Edgar, restored to his rightful mind closes the play, wisely. Paul Jesson makes a dependably solid Kent, his shaved head disguising him effectively when he is meant to be exiled. The women too are sound. Both fashion plates, with the elegance above disguising the evil beneath. A final eerie tableau of Goneril and Regan, dead, is posed and lit like a waxwork from Madame Tussaud's waxwork Chamber of Horrors. Cordelia (Nancy Carroll) is soft where her sisters are hard but her part seemed to shrink alongside her more powerful siblings.

The staging of the storm scene is worthy of a Lloyd-Webber musical such is its drowning opulence. The rain batters the set relentlessly and the panelling breaks away, falling flat. The thunder is deafening and even the audience shiver with the cold rain onstage. Lear is exposed in his shirt and socks to this incessant weather. In the post apocalyptic second half the furniture is piled up onstage and the bare brick of the rear of the stage is viewed through the few remaining panels. Some floorboards have sprung and grass grows between them The image is of the collapse of Lear's material world reflecting the collapse of his inner world, the loss of his mind. Almost as poignant for me, was meeting in a Brechtian moment, David Ryall as Gloucester in the corridor at the beginning of the interval, a tea towel over his head, blood on his shirt and being led to the dressing room.
King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Kent

Starring: Oliver Ford-Davies, Tom Hollander
With: Paul Jesson, David Ryall, James Frain, Suzanne Burden, Nancy Carroll, Lizzy McInnerny, Paul Shelley, David Robb, Richard Trinder, Lex Shrapnel, David Sibley, Anthony O'Donnell, Darren Greer, Hugh Simon, Sam Beazley, Pail Benzing
Design: Paul Brown
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design by John A Leonard for Aura
Music: Jonathan Dove
Running time: Three hours fifteen minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0207 359 4404
Booking to 30th March 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 12th February 2002 performance at The Almeida at King's Cross, Omega Place, Caledonian Road, London N1
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