Two years ago, we thought we saw a King Lear for our times. Derek Jacobi showed him as a quite gentle king, and we almost thought he was just pretending to be mad.
His almost Christ-like crown of thorns was worn like a tribute to the great king he is, not the grassy wreath picked up by a king turned mad, a king no more.
And now, at the Almeida, we have another great actor putting his mark on that role - the greatest Shakespearean role, it is said.
This is a king of old, proud and easily flattered by his sycophantic daughters. He seems to pretend he doesn’t quite believe all their unctuous love declarations, but the sudden, violent rage displayed when Cordelia is not willing to play this sickening game about love shows his real mettle. He is a vainglorious man, used to be kotowed to, used to having his way, and willing to destroy what he stands against, even if it's his most beloved daughter.
And so the tragedy unfolds in all of its dreadful bloodiness and nastiness. How actors live through these performances is beyond my understanding. Jonathan Pryce throws himself into this Lear with such vehemence you wonder if the collapse in the end is just ‘acting’. The change from bully to madman is so shocking, yet so credible, that we are grateful to see acting of this exhausting generosity. The pale, quiet, broken human of the end bears little resemblance to the vain, strident male of the beginning; yet isn’t this what all too often happens to ‘important’ people as they age and become impotent? It's so hard for them to adjust to being normal that they take the route of madness. We call it politer names like dementia or Alzheimer’s, but a form of madness it is, and it is so well demonstrated in this Lear, who seems to dip in and out of clarity of mind.
Great performances also come from Ian Gilder and Clive Wood, who both let us see their characters change so clearly. Directed by Michael Attenborough with simple, but evocative sets by Tom Scott, this is a Lear that will accomplish the task of true tragedy. It makes us shudder, moves us deeply, and guides us to a place of truthful contemplation of the important issues in our lives: How to be a good parent and child; the value of loyalty and love; the role of power and its rightful use or desperate, harmful misuse.
It's big stuff, but presented with such energy we leave the theatre elated.