Lear here, loud and clear
If you’ve never experienced a Shakespearean production for fear of not understanding blank verse and iambic pentameters – that sentence alone may put you off – then (Sir) Kenneth Branagh’s version of King Lear (The Wyndhams Theatre) is for you. Not only will you hear every word, but the length of the play has also been cut from the usual three hours plus to a quick fire 2 hours. Ye gods, is this an editing dagger which I see before me. When you are a knight of the realm you can pretty much do what you like. He plays Lear and directs Lear. This most nightmarish family drama of feuds, love, trust and our need for compassion, a tragedy in every sense, becomes a staccato punctuated play where diction is king and content is an unruly knave.
He begins in angry mode, maddened by his situation, and afflicted with madness having been cast out by his disputatious children to whom he promised his relinquished empire. His descent into a maddening quest for self-knowledge and reconciliation is there for all to see (and hear) and yet the subtlety and nuance of The Bard’s work is lost in the mire of what feels like a masterclass for students who have the play as part of their syllabus. Dressed by designer Jon Bausor like a shabby chic hobo, in blankets and fur – who secretly owns a mansion in Notting Hill – he drags himself around the galactic like set to the constant hum and threat of drumbeat. It is sporadically atmospheric, and the fight scenes are frantic with the warring factions in a state of frenzied action.
The other members of the cast also struggle to bring flow and coherence to their characters, stymied and shackled by Branagh’s approach, many of the sentences broken down into clearly annunciated, specific, singular words, making them sound more like medieval automatons than actors speaking lyrical Shakespearean verse. Branagh has taken a huge risk in producing such a classic play in this way and it presents as a vanity project in which his undoubted talent is sacrificed to a dramatic experiment that misfires. An audible tragedy but one that is hard to listen to.
And Sotira Kyriakides revels in the antics of a Soho socialite…
Robert Bathurst portrays the wryly humorous soak, journalist Jeffrey Bernard, who in real life, was – on more than one occasion – unable to meet his copy deadline for his ‘Low Life’ column in The Spectator, hence they used the apology “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell”. Bathurst’s poignant yet caustic rendering of the Bernardian reminiscences celebrate the drink-drenched conversations for which the pub was renowned, and the off-piste lives lived in a then more precarious Soho crawling with non-conformists and others enjoying a kind of bohemia. The play is a tribute to what was. Where else but The Coach and Horses could this louche drawl of a monologue be delivered, and in so laid-back and intimate a fashion? I’m surprised Bathurst didn’t fall off his wine-soaked barstool – I almost did!
Keith Waterhouse’s play originally had a cast of five, with Peter O’Toole in the title role way back in 1989. Much later, James Hillier’s adaption in 2019 treated the audience to a midnight start with a lock-in until 5am, raising glasses to the louche lifestyle of famously pickled Bernard and his “pub home” in Greek Street, Soho. An inebriated hoot.
King Lear – www.wyndhamstheatre.co.uk
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell – www.jeffreyplay.com