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Richard Franklin

Review: KING LEAR at the Globe Theatre

King Lear - Shakespeare Globe Audiences at recent Globe productions have enjoyed or had to endure several egocentric productions which have been more about the director's agenda rather than the playwright's so it's great to have the refreshingly steady hand of veteran director Nancy Meckler in the driving seat for Shakespeare's masterpiece, King Lear.

The story of an ageing monarch who causes civil war when he divides his legacy unequally between cruel and squabbling daughters is often revived. It's vivid enough to withstand being staged in all kinds of contexts and Meckler opts to make it the story of a gang of homeless people in the modern world.

This is a respectful and natural extension of Shakespeare's plot, a large part of which concerns the trials of king and courtiers as they are thrown out of their palaces to fend for themselves in the wild. Her approach often chimes vividly down the ages; homelessness was a huge problem in Elizabethan England as it is today.

The evening begins with the Globe stage covered in white plastic sheeting, an excitingly blank canvas on which to paint Shakespeare’s great depiction of human greed and disloyalty. The contemporary costumes tell us that we're in a squat and an abandoned supermarket cage of the type usually stacked with boxes will obviously become a key scenic element.

Red spray paint daubed around the stage proclaims KEEP OUT. None the less squatters break in including Lear, a grizzled tramp with a beanie hat beneath his crown and a gold cloak covering his tracksuit bottoms. Kevin R McNally commands the stage from this point with a compelling performance that fully conveys the bewilderment and rage of a descent into madness. Amidst the usual roaring of a fallen king there were also plenty moments when he skilfully uses stillness and a quiet low delivery to moving effect. This Lear may begin his story lacking judgement but he he has clearly developed a redeeming self-awareness when, hours later, he dies with his youngest and beloved child, Cordelia in his arms. Anjana Vasan, quietly and confidently gives Cordelia’s early and brave challenge to her Father a powerful sincerity which by the end of the evening reduces her father to tears.

It's interesting to consider whether Shakespeare was depicting what we now call Alzheimer's? The storm at the end of Act 2, breaking at the very climax of Lear’s fierce altercation with his heartless daughter Goneril seems to reflect a brain-storm in the head of the man deeply wounded by her callousness.

The Earl of Kent (traditionally played by a man) and banished by the King for early disobedience is played with wit and assurance by Saskia Reeves leading a strong supporting cast. Although switching the ages of the brothers Edgar and Edmund is an odd decision which brings little to the production.

Otherwise and from the outset Meckler's production was clarity itself, especially in the extraordinarily complex and wordy opening scenes when the whole cast point the key words with essential emphasis.

This is a very successful production of King Lear even if the intricacies and twists and turns of deception were harder to follow as the story reached its climax - the playwright's fault - and the continued use of the supermarket trolley became tedious - the director's fault.

None the less I recommend this as a vivid staging of an undisputed masterpiece. The potent themes of intergenerational conflict and the insanity of ageing remain as timelessly immediate as ever.