Lear Gets Brutal Makeover; Ibsen Love Trap: London Stage

Ian Gelder as Kent and Jonathan Pryce as Lear
Actors Ian Gelder as Kent (left) and Jonathan Pryce as Lear. Kent helps the king as he sinks into insanity in the Shakespeare play now at London's Almeida Theatre. Photographer: Keith Pattison. Source: Premier Communications via Bloomberg.

Jonathan Pryce turns and stares with crazy eyes and an insane smile twisted across his face.

“Let me not be mad,” he whimpers. “Not mad, sweet heaven.” His voice is barely more than a whisper.

The subtly underplayed line from “King Lear,” at the end of Act I, shows Pryce’s command of one of Shakespeare’s most demanding roles. Lear has to lurch from composure to craziness. It’s hard to do convincingly or without overacting.

On the whole, Pryce gets it right. Lear’s judgment goes askew near the start as he divides his kingdom between his three daughters. He favors the insincere flatterers Regan and Goneril over plain-loving Cordelia.

Pryce’s boiling rage gets a little overcooked at that point, but he then settles into a magnificent low-key portrayal. It isn’t quite up there with Derek Jacobi’s stunning performance at the Donmar Warehouse and New York last year. Yet has much of the complexity brought to the part by Jacobi’s fellow theatrical knights Michael Gambon and Ian McKellen.

The production by Michael Attenborough, part of the World Shakespeare Festival, is kept simple at London’s Almeida Theatre. There are plenty of crashes and flashes for the storm scene as Lear yells, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!”

The brutality becomes all the more chilling when he turns the volume down a notch or two and just glowers at the audience.

Clive Wood is a memorable Earl of Gloucester. Those of nervous disposition should look away during his blinding scene.

It’s also rare to see a genuinely funny Shakespearean fool. Trevor Fox has some neat magic tricks. Rating: ****.

‘Hedda Gabler’

Another lengthy play with a strong central character is Henrik Ibsen’s little-staged “Hedda Gabler.”

Hedda is an early feminist. She’s also headstrong, demanding and bossy.

At the same time she’s a fragile victim of fortune, a vulnerable little girl. Sheridan Smith tries to capture both sides of her personality in Anna Mackmin’s Old Vic production.

It’s a difficult task in the face of a wooden plot. Hedda is trapped in a boring bourgeois marriage after a “bad honeymoon.”

Ibsen has a reputation for strong female parts, though Hedda is outshone by her insufferably pompous husband George (Adrian Scarborough). His childlike glee over a pair of embroidered slippers and a promised professorship are hilarious. The comic manipulations of lecherous Judge Brack (Darrell D’Silva) also prevent the play from getting too serious.

The new translation by Brian Friel is a joy, with jokes about the “exceedingly naughty” Judge “making whoopee.”

We can see this is going to get violent two hours before it happens, as soon as Hedda reveals she has kept guns. Then endless diversions and domestic politics slow the plot. It’s a long wait for the inevitable bad end. Rating: ***.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Mediocre
(No stars) Poor

“King Lear” is at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, Islington, N1 1TA, through Nov. 3. The production is sponsored by Coutts. Aspen is the Almeida’s principal partner. Information: http://www.almedia.co.uk or +44-207-359-4404.

“Hedda Gabler” is at the Old Vic, 103 The Cut, SE1 8NB, through Nov. 10. Information: http://www.oldvictheatre.com or +44-844-871-7628.

(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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