sat 20/04/2024

King Lear, Almeida Theatre review - Danny Sapani dazzles in this spartan tragedy | reviews, news & interviews

King Lear, Almeida Theatre review - Danny Sapani dazzles in this spartan tragedy

King Lear, Almeida Theatre review - Danny Sapani dazzles in this spartan tragedy

Yaël Farber presents Shakespeare’s blistering play with bravura

"Speak what we feel": Lear with his daughtersMarc Brenner

Less than three years after her magnificent Macbeth, Yaël Farber returns to the Almeida with another Shakespeare tragedy. Her take on King Lear (main picture) offers a full-bodied, slow-burn version of this devastating drama, where Danny Sapani’s masterful performance as Lear sears the stage.

While bringing a modern-dress aesthetic to Shakespeare’s play, Farber’s production sets great store by a poetic minimalism that foregrounds the expressive powers of her outstanding cast. On a stage surrounded by a string curtain and occasionally featuring only a few chairs, a piano, and a metal globe (set design by Merle Hensel), rawness of emotion and lucidity of speech find ample space to combine to chilling effect. Farber places emphasis on the tragedy’s filial layers, with the double plot of Lear’s and Gloucester’s concurrent downfalls reflected in visually impressive tableaus.

At first, Sapani’s Lear strikes us as a surprisingly violent, physically aggressive man, whose gradual descent into infantile madness and extreme vulnerability is therefore more disturbing. Upon witnessing Cordelia’s (Gloria Obianyo) failure to display her affection, he throws an anger tantrum, and he also attempts to strangle Kent (Alec Newman) before exiling him. This perhaps hints at a history of abusive behaviour within his family and court, which undergirds the feral viciousness of both Goneril (Akiya Henry) and Regan (Faith Omole) down the line.

Once exposed to the elements in the heath scenes, Sapani presents Lear’s lunacy with a dose of humour that betrays a sense of woeful regression. First clothed in a torn-apart suit and then stripping down to his underwear, he paints the obverse image of his prior fits of fury. Matthew Tennyson’s grotesque Edgar works wonders in these moments, too: covered in black and white paint, and waving a plastic sheet, he resembles a deranged Ariel. There is a groundedness to his dissembling speech as Poor Tom that mirrors the calm-headed, philosophic demeanour of Clarke Peters’s brilliant Fool (pictured below).

Sapani finds real frailty and scorching regret in Lear’s reunion with Cordelia. The final scene in which he grieves next to her corpse allows his performance to reach a virtuosic height, in which Lear’s rational faculties appear to have come back, but only to present him with the full horror of all that’s transpired. As Gloucester, Michael Gould is similarly affecting in his painful recognition of past mistakes and betrayals in the wake of his blinding.

Elsewhere in the cast, both Henry’s Goneril and Omole’s Regan are richly textured portrayals of filial resentment and sexual competitiveness. Their erotic battle over Fra Fee’s brawny Edmund adds significant steam to their conflict. Speaking in his Irish lilt, Fee neatly presents the play’s arch-villain as a cocky man expert at dissimulating those around him. Geoffrey Lumb and Edward Davis are both pitch-perfect as Duke of Albany and Duke of Cornwall, respectively, and Hugo Bolton’s Oswald has just the right amount of camp to bring some levity to an otherwise sombre evening.

Lee Curran’s stark lighting moves us across disparate locations with deft touches, while Peter Rice’s ominous sound design proves indispensable to the production’s governing sense of unease. Camilla Dely’s stylish costumes help set the autumnal tone, as well as throw into relief the contrast between regal composure and abject precarity. The latter is also reinforced by Imogen Knight’s smooth movement direction.

Despite its penchant for musical interludes (including, awkwardly, at the very end) and its occasional lags in tempo, this remains a deeply satisfying – because unsettling – treatment of King Lear. Over its three-and-half-hour running time, a whole world of greed, envy, and regret comes alive in spartan yet affectively bold registers. Farber has once again proven herself to be an incisive and meticulous interpreter of Shakespeare. One is left wishing that she will keep coming back to the Almeida for more.


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