It’s easy to get jaded about theater in London. You get big stars all the time (this for me means movie stars, not TV stars), and a quantity of shows that beggars belief. You get the new stuff, you get the classics, you get MULTIPLE versions of classics in one year.
Well, actually, now we’re starting to talk about the problem areas. Seriously, how many TOP NAME ACTORS do we need to see in Hamlet in one year? Is there any excuse for having three Henry IVs part 1 in the same month? Maybe we should be … doing more experimental work? Maybe the big name actors should be pushing the envelope by getting involved in new shows? I mean … does anyone get the feeling maybe the theaters are trying to play it safe with BIG NAME PEOPLE in REALLY FAMOUS PLAYS? Not that I’m complaining about a Long Day’s Journey with David Suchet, and, hey, that girl from Dr Who is in Lucy Prebble’s new play The Effect at the National (though she’s a TV star – still, enough of an effect to make the show a sell-out before it even went to general booking) … but sometimes it feels like there’s not enough risk taking from the theaters or the actors.
Which, I think, brings us pretty squarely to King Lear at the Almeida Theater. It’s pretty safe programming, and the Almeida has loaded the dice by filling the cast with a bunch of big names, none of which I recognized (this is true in real life for me as well as the theater). However, people were very excited about Jonathan Pryce being in it, and even though I haven’t seen him in anything since Brazil, I thought, hey, I ought to go, especially when the Almeida was being nice and offering some bloggers comps to attend very early in the run. I hoped that I’d be ready for it it even though I’d just got back from a week of kayaking in Sicily and was somewhat suspicious about the need for me to see another Lear so soon after Sir Ian’s performance …
Lear, as ever, starts off by alienating the audience (as he alienates “good daughter” Cordelia, a very regal Phoebe Fox), and part of the journey of the actor is, I think, to pull us around to sympathizing with Lear rather than thinking that we’d throw him out if he were our dad. And, well, ew, for some reason director Michael Attenborough decided to have Lear give some incestuous-seeming kisses to the “good” daughters, and that just turned me against Lear in a way I was not able to overcome across the course of the evening. Gloucester (Clive Wood) is a different story – he is lied to and misled, and shows himself to have a strong moral fiber lacking in at least half of the other characters. Thus, to me, he is a real figure of tragedy; Lear, however, is more of an Oedipus, a man deservingly brought down by the gods for his pride.
The ensemble is very strong in this cast – amazing to see the wealth of talent available to the English stage in the over-sixty set – and the design work is extremely effective in the admittedly small Almeida space. But I was never able to emotionally connect to the action on stage. Perhaps it was too close to my return from a long vacation (though I Am a Camera the night before was very enjoyable) … perhaps it was directorial choices. At either rate, I left unmoved, and with the feeling that for some plays, three years between productions is just not enough.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 12th, 2012. It continues through November 3rd.)