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King Lear review at Shakespeare’s Globe, London – ‘a solid and subtle performance’

Kevin R McNally in King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe, London. Photo: Marc Brenner Kevin R McNally in King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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The Emma Rice era is winding down. You can feel its enriching, invigorating ichor already seeping out here, in the fairly traditional staging of Nancy Meckler’s production and the smeared greys of Rosanna Vize’s set as visible – and metaphorical – signs that the gaudy colours of Rice’s reign are fading.

She’s not the only ruler being forced to give up her power: here’s Lear, directed by former Shared Experience artistic director Meckler, as a vagrant almost, stripped to trackie bottoms and a vest and surrounded by a set wrapped in reams of white scaffolding cloth. There’s no great song and dance about casting a starry Lear – we had enough of those last year. Instead we get strength and solidity from Kevin R McNally.

His bushy beard and beanie hat, his bandy legs and slight totter, suggest someone you’d see in a park shouting at pigeons rather than a great king. He’s quick to violence, grabbing Saskia Reeves’ versatile Kent by the throat in a fit of unnecessary pique, and just as quick to soften.

McNally is extremely deft, completely in control of his subtle performance. He tends towards comedy, playing a fool and luring us to laugh just enough until he shrinks back from that humour and suddenly becomes pathetic, vulnerable, childlike and it feels wrong to have laughed.

There are a few so-so performances, but Anjana Vasan’s gentle, straightforward Cordelia and Emily Bruni’s Goneril are strong standouts. Bruni is particularly good, stiff and upright at the beginning with perfect hair and smart clothes. Her voice seems to crack with pent-up frustration and bitterness at her father and her lot, that waver marking the only sign of imperfection that breaks the immaculately maintained surface. That is until she falls in love with Ralph Davis’ Edmund, when those signs of primness disappear and she cuts loose.

Meckler’s production hints that this Lear is an old man who, showing the first signs of dementia, is consigned to a home by his cruel daughters. He chooses instead to strike out on his own, ending up homeless and mad. But that interpretation is never rammed home and the whole thing is also pretty abstract, with very little to signpost any time period or any great overriding concept.

That blank(ish) canvas works in the production’s favour, particularly when it comes to a theme such as dementia, with every audience member able to bring their own experiences with the ubiquitous condition to bear on the play.

The production is cast colour blind, and gender blind to an extent with a female Kent and Fool, but there’s nothing too outrageous here, nothing to provoke the purists or to give the iconoclasts cause to rejoice. It’s just a very decent King Lear, clear and precise, with nothing in excess.

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Kevin R McNally gives a solid, subtle performance as Lear in Nancy Meckler’s production