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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
KING LEAR
at the Young Vic

KING IN DECLINE
By MATT WOLF

  Pete Postlethwaite/Ph: Stephen Vaughan

A lightning rod for controversy during its Liverpool tryout in the fall, Rupert Goold's superb production of King Lear has landed at London's Young Vic Theatre with startling force: a concept-intensive staging whose various eccentricities only heighten this greatest of plays, which here benefits from one of the truest, most empathic Lears in my experience courtesy the sad-eyed, skeletally built, altogether wonderful Pete Postlethwaite - a comparative Shakespearean novice who comes at Lear's journey toward and away from madness with remarkable lucidity.

Sure, the production won't please those Bardolators who like their Lears served up large-scale and stentorian, along the lines of Ian McKellen in the touring Trevor Nunn version for the Royal Shakespeare Co. that Goold's altogether lower-key production trumps on pretty much every front. Far more so than in his (overpraised) West End/Broadway Macbeth with Patrick Stewart that sometimes lost Shakespeare's most compact tragedy amidst all the surface invention, this Lear incorporates flourishes - plenty of them - that nonetheless always service the text, from microphones and megaphones to convey the props of power to a floral dress and parasol for Lear late in his decline. That latter choice, in turn,allows a singular note of the feminine from this fearsome male authority figure, as if the mad monarch were somehow required to don his daughters' clothes before he could come to any real comprehension of them. And all psychologizing apart, the scene goes down a visual treat, too.

Giles Cadle's set relocates the play to a grimly industrial northern England from the recent past, whose steps Tobias Menzies' athletic Edgar makes his way up and down, the character here given a jockish spin that enlivens the part of one of the text's few survivors and allows the superb Menzies to partner Jonjo O'Neill's expert Edmund in reclaiming the roles of the two sons that have been seriously underdeveloped in most recent go-rounds of this play.

There's an inspired sequence late on where these two sons of Gloucester have at one another with plastic swords, the boyish byplay of the violence transformed in an instant into genuine bloodlust, in much the same way that the slight, ponytailed Postlethwaite nonetheless contains within his exhausted frame the capacity for full-on violence. (Someone send this guy a care package, please!) An excellent male ensemble includes Forbes Masson's Fool, who delivers a jaunty snippet from Singin' In the Rain all the while reminding us of the abiding seriousness of purpose of Lear's confidante and conscience. (For those who are interested, the moment in Liverpool in which Edmund shoots the Fool dead has been jettisoned in the move southward to the Young Vic.)

Just as Edgar and Edmund leap blazingly to contrasting life, so, too, are Regan and Goneril here sharply differentiated in ways that aren't always true of Lear. Caroline Faber's Goneril seems to carry her initial pregnancy as a direct affront to Lear's call for barrenness, while Charlotte Randle's take-no-prisoners Regan emerges as the most venal of vamps, not least in an eye-gouging scene that at the performance caught visibly undid one playgoer, apparently not the first time this has happened. Amid such high-definition yet unselfish acting, the Cordelia of Amanda Hale is somewhat surprisingly underprojected, though that may itself be conscious on the part of a production that uses technology to make particular blowhards of those who are so minded, whereas it is Cordelia's way to opt for action and silence over empty rhetoric. (Hale, you may remember, was Laura in the Goold-directed Glass Menagerie, with Jessica

 


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