King Lear video capsule review: 2012, directed by Michael Attenborough [Jonathan Pryce]

Continuing our video capsule reviews for King Lear

In 2012, director Michael Attenborough mounted a production of King Lear at the Almeida Theatre in London, with Jonathan Pryce as the old king. It was captured on video before a live audience, and it’s available for rent on Digital Theatre.

There’s no free version via YouTube or libraries out there… so should you shell out the cash?

Uh, yeah.

Remember how back in the last review, the Olivier from 1983, I feared Lear-fatigue? Either that wasn’t the case or I’ve hit a second wind (and thank goodness, as I’ve still got three more to go [4 if you count Kurosawa’s Ran]).

I really liked this one, I mean, I really really liked it.

The look. The costuming. The performances, where most deliver their lines more naturalistically. And yet no one seems to butcher the meter of the lines.

This simpler approach tends to make this more about the family dynamic than the nation. There doesn’t seem to be as large an age difference between the older sisters and Cordelia here as it is in most productions, which in a way makes his overdone statement of her “favorite child” status even more hurtful. You might think that might help explain what is, in most productions, the seemingly inexplicable evil shown by the older daughters, and it might. But there’s something else, very subtle and unsavory here that’s happening. I’ll discuss it in more detail in my full review on the podcast, but suffice to say, it’s disturbing.

Pryce’s performance throughout is solid, playing the puppetmaster in the opening scene–literally, he moves Cordelia’s arms around–and physically foreshadowing the heart attack that will kill him when he throws Kent to the floor. And it’s not the only foreshadowing, so that when we writhes in pain at the end, we’re not surprised. He moves from distracted to forgetful to delusional to completely mad. It’s a steady decline and beautifully done.

Both his reunion with Cordelia and Gloucester’s with Edgar pack an emotional punch (see, no Lear-fatigue here, and Phoebe Fox, Clive Wood, and Richard Goulding, respectively, are all excellent). And I actually bought Kieran Bew’s 11th hour conversion as Edmund and his repentance, something that’s not always the case.

There’s so much to recommend this video, but it’s not perfect: the sprouting of a tree at the end of the storm and the beginning of intermission felt ham-handed. And honestly, the more I think about the possibility of such the ugly family secret that I alluded to earlier, the less I like it. The concept never paid off, and if we’re to believe it, how can we truly sympathize with what happens to Lear in the play?

Those lingering, and now growing, doubts are what keep me from giving this production a more enthusiastic rave. It gets a big-time recommendation because, damn, Pryce is great, and the direction is great. That sickening after-taste, though, is far from great.

And don’t forget to have an ear out for our upcoming podcast with full reviews of all of the major versions I’ve found!

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