Review: King Lear


by Mike Matthaiakis

Kenneth Branagh’s take on “King Lear” unfolds as a production with a sense of destiny, marrying the weight of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy with the stature of our greatest living Shakespearian. Branagh, not only playing the titular role but also directing himself, brings a youthful vigor at the age of 62. However, the production, clocking in at a swift two hours without an interval, struggles with the challenge of not having enough of Branagh’s powerful presence.

Set in the pre-modern era, the stage is dominated by a rugged stone circle reminiscent of Stonehenge, and the cast, clad in furs and sackcloth, channels a Game of Thrones aesthetic. The atmosphere is earthbound, yet the energy is muscular, rugged, and testosterone-fueled, reflecting the primal factionalism of the times. Branagh’s Lear, with hirsute grandiosity, exudes a Trumpian air, a ruler still firmly in control. His fury carries an icy logic, coupled with an unexpected vulnerability that surfaces in his interactions with the fool.

This rendition of “King Lear” opts for a stripped-down approach, shedding some of the cosmic poetry and complexity of the original. The intimate focus on domestic and familial chaos, particularly in Lear’s relationship with Cordelia, suits the production but sacrifices the play’s restless sense of epic and universal scope. The supporting cast struggles to assert themselves, and the psychodrama between Edmund and Goneril and Regan fails to captivate.

The blinding of Gloucester, a moment intended to horrify on every level, feels inconsequential in this rendition, lacking the impact it should carry. By shaping Lear as a play defined by the nihilistic cynicism of the younger generation rather than as a contemplation of the devastations of age, the production loses some of its singular poignancy.

As for Branagh’s performance, it is magnificent in moments, revealing a ruler whose certainties are whimsical and whose madness stems from an uncanny sense of righteousness. However, the production’s limitations make it feel like a dress rehearsal for Branagh, leaving the impression that a grander outing is on the horizon. While this “King Lear” showcases Branagh’s prowess, it hints at the potential for a more expansive and impactful exploration of the iconic role in the future.