Although Michael Attenborough’s fast-paced and lucid revival edges dangerously from pagan neutrality into medieval monotone, Jonathan Pryce’s Lear is a compelling old curmudgeon, fiery and watchful at the same time, and especially moving in the scenes from Dover to deathbed.
Chook Sibtain (Cornwall), Jenny Jules (Regan), Jonathan Pryce (King Lear), Zoe Waites (Goneril) and Richard Hope (Albany) in King Lear, Almeida Theatre, London Photo: Keith Pattison
The division of his kingdom comes with coronets, a golden band placed on Cordelia’s head before she even speaks - Phoebe Fox is an unusually rebellious younger daughter, fracturing the placid surface of a family gathering to allocate land and husbands.
Pryce, once a ferocious Hamlet and a wolverine Macbeth, charts Lear’s every step from paternal command to monolithic madness with a more measured, analytical exactitude. There’s no thud and blunder in his progress - it’s all part of what to expect, as he wryly observes, as we “crawl towards death”. Zoe Waites’s Goneril and Jenny Jules’s Regan, one savage, one slinky, are poised for the kill.
This explains why, after years of seeming amity and stability, the calmness cracks and the welkin roars. Tom Scutt’s all-brick design, using the theatre’s back wall, is given a subtle son et lumiere treatment by Jon Clark’s lighting and Dan Jones’s sound, providing an epic scale without drowning a single word.
There’s a nice Geordie Fool from Trevor Fox, an attentive Kent from Ian Gelder, a growling Gloucester from Clive Wood (playing a blinder in the eye-gouging scene) and well-contrasted villainous and virtuous brothers from Kieran Bew and Richard Goulding.
Pryce finds a real comic spring in his reunion with Gloucester before declining into wheelchair-bound, disoriented distraction. He utters his three “howls” and five “nevers” in drawing attention to Cordelia’s fate and sealing his own with a fearsome shudder.