King Lear, Almeida Theatre, London

 

If Hamlet is the supreme test of the younger actor, Jonathan Pryce passed it with flying colours in 1980 at the Royal Court where, in a startling double, his febrile Prince hawked up the speeches of the Ghost in fits of agonising psychic possession. There is nothing quite so radically daring in his his approach to King Lear, the equivalent challenge for veterans which, at the age of 65, he is now taking on.

Like Michael Attenborough's carefully charted production, this is an impressive, lucidly pondered portrayal – with tremors of genuinely unsettling danger and disturbance –  but you feel that both stop short of the devastating abandon and emotional extremity that the tragedy requires. 

Too evenly paced and unevenly cast, this King Lear is at its best when dropping hints of the familial dysfunction that may lie behind the cruelty of Goneril and Regan who, it is intimated here, were sexually abused by their father. 

Pryce's white-haired, deceptively twinkling, and still vigorous monarch conducts the initial love-test with an amused, shameless favouritism, planting a coronet on Phoebe Fox's defiantly unsentimental Cordelia before she's even had the opportunity to speak. 

He's a man used to being in absolute control and when his older daughters cross his will, he gives them sudden, savage reminders of the depraved power he once had over them. After cursing her with a hair-raising venom, he forces a violent, lewd kiss on Zoe Waites's Goneril, so that his lines about resuming “the shape which thou dost think/I have cast off forever” quiver with sexual threat.  He later inflicts the same innuendo-ridden treatment on Regan (Jenny Jules). 

Trevor Fox is a lovely dry Geordie Fool who struggles to restrain Lear with a desperate, loving embrace throughout the storm scene as Jon Clark's spectacular lighting crashes round Tom Scutt's medieval/modern set whose curving tiered brick wall mirrors the Almeida's own architecture. 

The quiet dignity of Ian Gelder's stalwart Kent is deeply affecting and I loved how Clive Wood's blinded Gloucester had to laugh when the crack-witted king in a coronet of weeds begins the “great stage of fools” speech in the quavery accents of a pompous vicar. 

Resorting to jokey parody as a shelter from the intolerable sense of his own powerlessness is a habit that Pryce's Lear finds it hard to kick. It makes the stripping away of this protection all the more moving, even if you reckon that, emotionally, neither performance nor production execute the full Monty.

To 3 Nov; 020 7359 4404

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