Jonathan Pryce’s 1980 Hamlet at the Royal Court is legendary, something that no-one who saw it will ever forget. He famously vomited up his father from the depths of his own being, a virtuosic display of the actor’s art. There have been few opportunities to see Pryce in Shakespeare since then and it’s taken until now for him to tackle one of the playwright’s greatest tragic creations. It’s unfortunate that his Lear inhabits a production that is unworthy of its central performance.
There’s a stodginess to Michael Attenborough’s direction that makes some of the more unlikely aspects of the plot – Lear’s sudden and idiotic rejection of Cordelia, Edgar’s reaction to Edmund’s plotting, Kent’s return in a disguise comprised of a change of accent – seem creakier than is usually apparent. In fact it manages to come across as not a very good play, which we all know is not the case.
Pryce gives a marvelous portrait of a dotty, dirty old man, qualities perfect for Pinter’s caretaker but not quite King Lear. He lacks grandness and regality, which makes his fall from grace to destitution a small one. His “Blow winds and crack your cheeks,” foot-lit and declaimed amidst a swirling cloud of dry ice, is nevertheless the most exciting acting of the evening and leaves the rest of the cast standing.
Zoe Waites and Jenny Jules as the ugly sisters glower and gloat while Phoebe Fox’s Cordelia is unusually pugnacious. Her contempt for her sisters is apparent from the word go and there’s no way that she’s going to give her old man what he wants. It’s a family unit with not a jot of love lost and a sense of incestuous abuse, badly under-developed.
Clive Wood is more vigorous than most as Gloucester but Ian Gelder’s Kent makes little impact, while the young Turks (Kieran Bew’s Edmund and Richard Goulding’s Edgar) provide merely standard support and Chook Sibtain’s tall Cornwall does little but strut and bellow. The lanky Geordie Fool (Trevor Fox), although attempting something a bit different, fails to overcome the tediousness of the character. It’s a mark of the production that efforts to present characters and events in unfamiliar ways remain somehow rooted in obviousness.
Tom Scutt’s mildewed castle blends perfectly into the building’s natural features but, along with the amateurish medieval costumes and unsubtle lighting, gives the production a distinctly old-fashioned feel. It’s like being transported back to the 1930s or what one imagines passed for great drama then. Without Pryce’s descent into helplessness, full of detail and quirky uniqueness, it would be a sorry affair indeed.