On Theatre

Mad for this fresh take on King Lear

Farber’s casting and concept feels assured

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“An elderly man with memory problems,” was the US Department of Justice counsel’s summary of Joe Biden’s unmoored ramblings, when the President found himself obliged to answer for careless handling of official documents. That conclusion would also work as the tagline for King Lear, the most searing dramatic treatment of physical and mental decline through the fractured prism of a kingship unravelling.

In the nimble hands of South African director, Yaël Farber, it is a modern-dress version, which foregrounds the impact of wealth and untrammelled power on family dynamics, as the King’s decision to opt for a poorly-calculated early equity release scheme unleashes bloody chaos.

In her last outing at Islington’s Almeida, with Macbeth, Farber presented the murderous duo as a loved-up pair, impelled to satisfy each other’s wants, rather than as engines of ego and mutual destruction. Farber often seeks to direct our attention to themes and characters who end up at the edges of more conventional productions or to upend our fundamental perceptions of classic repertoire.

Led by Danny Sapani as lear, the production’s core cast is all black and the surrounding court white. Theatre is awash with disputes about who should play which roles — most absurdly about whether Richard III could be played by an actor without an actual scoliosis humpback.

Too many contemporary directors shoehorn race or gender twists into the action, but Farber’s casting and concept feels assured. If there is tacit message in the ethnic switching, it is that power and influence are indeed topsy-turvy in many ways and territories torn apart in conflict are a pretty durable theme, to judge by the state of the 2020s.

We spend the end of the first half of Lear terrified about the imminent plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes

Surrounded by his elder daughters, Goneril (Akiya Henry) and Regan (Faith Omole) and “jewel” Cordelia (Gloria Obianyo), Lear recklessly severs his kingdom. All this happens at stand-up mics with echoes of TV’s The Traitors, in which participants vie to show performative, guileful affection. A nice touch: Gloucester (Edward Davis) hastily motions to the cameras that it is time to wind up after Cordelia’s challenge to paternal authority brings down the screaming wrath of dad.

Cordelia is such a slim part in lines and presence that directors have a hard choice to make in establishing the character beneath her defiance. Here, she is at the stroppier end of the spectrum, chin-jutting and clad in genderless white slacks and a cut-off black jacket, while her serpentine siblings slink around in tactile silks and cashmere.

Sapani’s Lear is physically as much as verbally abusive, hurling around props in an adumbration of his eventual angry madness — which raises the uncomfortable thought that Regan and Goneril, vixens of violence later on, did perhaps not fall so far from the tree.

Possibly we’ve got the hang of the persistent aural enhancement by the time we get the a cappella version

Clarke Peters (the veteran cop in The Wire) brings his New Jersey mellifluous voice and a septuagenarian’s gumption to the Fool. It’s a wise, knowing interpretation which sacrifices the wit and jest of the part, but shades it closer to being an alternative to Lear’s self-perception. The humiliated monarch can, after all, say things in the Fool’s presence that he hides behind anger or majesty with everyone else.

Anguished and physically imposing, Sapani wears a cluster of silver rings on his fingers like regal knuckledusters and his broad physicality underlines the mismatch of sturdy body and dishevelled mind.

However, if you like to pick out future “most likely to wow” talent from supporting roles, I commend the Irish musical theatre star Fra Fee as the “bastard” Edmund — deliciously sexy-bad and bringing colour to a role which can be a bit one-note boo-hiss villain. It’s not hard to see why the sisters would prefer a roll in the royal hay with the charismatic imposter than with the wimpy husbands.

Inevitably, we spend the end of the first half of Lear terrified about the imminent plucking out of Gloucester’s eyes. It’s pure Tarantino here, with the ghoulish siblings purring in pleasure at the torture (having us watch servants throw plastic sheeting over the sofa and use a twenty-first-century pendant light to illuminate the horror boosts the dread).

Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” recurs as musical refrain, overlaid by a haunting violin sound backdrop. Frankly I am in two minds about the persistent aural enhancement. It’s musically adept and alleviates the “text-heavy” nature of a play that runs to over three hours. But possibly we have got the hang of the idea by the time we get the a cappella version at the end, which felt like an overreach.

The more tolerant side of me says the Almeida — with ticket prices around half or less of those at West End theatres — is angled towards younger audiences and under Rupert Goold as its long-stay artistic director has melded innovation and quality, so the occasional overreach is a price worth paying.

The grapevine says Goold might well have ended up as director of the National Theatre, pipped to the grandee role by Indhu Rubasingham, as the NT sought to end its all-male run of bosses. The South Bank’s loss is, for now, Islington’s gain. This Lear is a fresh look at a great work — and a reminder that early retirement is not always a trouble-free idea.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover