King Lear at the Almeida Theatre starts well but loses its way, writes Tom Sutcliffe

My Magdalen, Oxford Eng. Lit. tutor Emrys Jones died in June, much regretted. He got his Fellowship almost immediately on graduating in his mid-20s as replacement for C.S. Lewis who had decamped to Cambridge in 1954 with a brand new professorship. Emrys was shy as a tutor, but sharp and direct. I was a bad student but decades later he was very helpful to me as a sponsor of one of my Leverhulme Fellowships – mainly I think because he was a huge enthusiast for opera, which was the crazily minority specialization I had taken up. His death prompted me to buy those of his books which I did not already have. The Origins of Shakespeare (1977) is a brilliant rejoinder to the myth, fostered by Dryden among others, that Shakespeare was not educated or well-read, but was just a brilliant student of nature, a notion that has contributed to the whole absurd authorship argument which James Shapiro so brilliantly anatomized in Contested Will (Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, for instance, are ‘Oxfordians’).

But the opening scenes were very good – done with total clarity and simplicity. Pryce was wonderfully, dangerously sweet as he explained his purpose of dividing his kingdom in three parts while retaining the means to a comfortable retirement. It all seemed so goodwilled and straightforward till Phoebe Fox’s Cordelia refused to play the game of courtly exaggeration. ‘Nothing will come of nothing,’ says Lear. Cordelia’s representation of truth about love is unbearably moving – Ms Fox is a newish talent with complete guilelessness at her disposal, always a complicated quality in the theatre where nothing is ever as it seems.

Clarity and simplicity

I also liked Zoe Waites’s Goneril, Ian Gelder’s Kent and Richard Hope’s Albany. Clive Wood’s Gloucester was convincingly choleric, though a bit too robust to be convincing in despair. However, when we meet Kieran Bew’s Edmund, speaking with a matey Yorkshire accent as does the too ponderous intense Fool of Trevor Fox, the whole show starts to wander. In the storm with Poor Tom it loses its way completely. Pryce shouts a lot, as does everybody, while nobody, certainly not Richard Goulding’s Edgar, seems mad or abandoned. Fakery rules.

Emrys also argues that Shakespeare put to ‘significant use the originally Catholic mystery plays of his youth… he had an unparalleled capacity for absorbing new influences… But his progress forward never entailed cutting himself off from the still living past.’ For Emrys the origin of Shakespeare’s work was as much the Christian humanism of Erasmus as the collaboration and sense of the contemporary ferment within the theatre company where he made his career, and Emrys called for the fruits of closer more detailed research into the mixture of culture and local politics that created the theatre of Shakespeare’s time which far too often was seen in terms of literary words, detached from the living turmoil that made it.

Religious overtones

At King Lear at the Almeida Theatre with Jonathan Pryce in the main role I found Emrys’s sense of Shakespeare’s origins re-echoing. The whole idea of testing how much you love your parent in terms of what you can say actually has strong religious overtones – though to pay lip-service is surely always going to be less significant than actions. God so loved the world – but how much do you love God? Unlike Hamlet, where the wicked Claudius is not killed because he is praying, the world of King Lear is pre-Christian – and the gods are seen in Lucretian terms as largely unhelpful or absent. Peter Brook’s production of the play for the RSC 50 years ago was one of the formative experiences of my adolescence: Paul Scofield’s Lear travelled a more epic sustained path. Michael Attenborough’s Almeida production never really gets the measure of the piece, nor brings its nightmarish world convincingly alive.

Designer Tom Scutt’s single interior courtyard set deprives Lear and the whole story of the physical outside into which he has to be driven by his basilisk daughters. And, as with the National Theatre’s recent updated Antigone, I utterly detested the sound effects and atmospheric cinematic music deployed by Dan Jones to prepare and close scenes – hyped-up storm sound and the repeated slamming of doors and shutters.

But it is Edmund that is the real problem. There is nothing funny about King Lear including the jokes Edmund makes when, like Richard III, he lets us in on his cunning wicked plans. Edmund is not meant to be funny. I recall a Lear in Adelaide, Australia, where the audience laughed at the blinding of Gloucester. At the Almeida there were far too many titters around me when Edmund joked, as if he were supposed to be likeable.


The costumes are stale medieval but look RSC-ish rather than evoking a world. The production lacks the long reach it needs to convey the horror of the moral world with which it is dealing. You can only do Lear in three hours if cut: Attenborough’s version was an injudicious conflation of the quarto and folio. The whole experience seemed pocket-sized – small stage, small cast, small vision. Much too tame and unambitious. ND