In 1997 Kathryn Hunter made history becoming the first woman to play King Lear in a professional production. What has changed since? For one thing, women playing men on stage is more commonplace. Usually, it highlights the performance of gender, masculine idiosyncrasies that go unnoticed are revealed hiding beneath the surface of the everyday.
Twenty-five years later Hunter’s Lear is less of a feminist statement and more of a testament to her mesmerising ability as a performer. She does not play at being a man, here Lear feels almost genderless in their old age as they hobble in and out of a velvet lined wheelchair and wields a cane as an extension of his fragile body. In the year of the Platinum Jubilee, Hunter’s Lear is a monarch overwhelmed by their age, almost a prisoner in their own body whose fighting spirit is constantly trying to break free.
But the production does not offer much beyond Hunter. Nothing else resonates with her performance leaving her to carry the production. Incoherence is everywhere; other characters are dressed in a hodgepodge of clashing styles. Some don Elizabethan breastplates, medieval berets, others post-apocalyptic trench coats, suits, and leather jackets. Along with the rust lined set, which admittedly looks good in this sweltering weather, there is no suggestion of a world beyond the stage to ground the characters.
Ryan Donaldson’s Edmund is particularly bewilderingly; his top half is Lord Byron with an open laced shirt and long dandyish hair, the bottom half is more Sid Vicious with cargo trousers and leather boots. His performance is more tedious than villainous, coming across as a conceited public-school boy rather than threatening power monger. By contrast Kwaku Mills’s Edgar is feeble throughout, never finding enough confidence to solidify Edgar’s emotional journey.
With exception to an excellent Ann Ogbomo as a brutally rationalistic Goneril, the rest of cast feel drained of energy. Fortunately, Hunter is a lightning strike sending a bolt of electricity to the revive the rest of the cast. Michelle Terry’s pompous fool is particularly reliant on Hunter. She is only able to solidify her character’s presence through interactions with Lear. Otherwise, she is left singing and slinging self-righteous cynicism without focus.
Needless to say, without Hunter the production would spiral. Scenes without Lear struggle to stay afloat, often bamboozled by the language rather than shepherded by it. Much of the third and fourth acts drag and scenes with thick exposition grow bloated and tiresome across the three-hour run time. The tragic climax is left wilting in the summer heat, and so are the audience.
Words by Alexander Cohen
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