Kenneth Branagh’s King Lear

Susan Tailby
4 min readNov 21, 2023

An epic two-hour edit of King Lear — go…

The staging is amazing. We’re in a Henge and there is a circle sky. Look closely before the show starts and stars shoot across the sky occasionally. This will later tilt dramatically to form the storm when King Lear does his thing. The Henge also moves at points to form avenues or to mirror facial expressions LARGE. All is darkness with subtle lighting so that impressive shadows are thrown at different points, and the front of the set is mirrored casting more images still. Enjoy too the wonderful hoods sported by some of the cast.

Channeling 50 shades of mud, all the characters are drably clothed and draped with random furs — think Last Kingdom: The Mud Years. However great detail has been put in to how this society dresses, styles itself and functions — staffs are used as symbols of authority and weapons — sometimes both. But at times, due to the gloom and the mud colours, it was a bit awkward to tell who from whom. This was regionalism rather than nationalism.

It’s an ensemble piece rather than the Ken Branagh show — for a lot of the time he’s not there! Deborah Alli as Gonereil and Melanie‑Joyce Bermudez as Regan give impressive performances, creating fire every time on they’re on stage. We could feel compassion for Gonreil insulted and put upon by her strangely demanding father. Equally strangely missing is Cordelia (Jessica Revell) who really only pops up at the beginning to get rejected and re-appears dead at the end. Perhaps this doesn’t matter though as she also plays The Fool brilliantly.

Going full Ulrich in Last Kingdom, Edmund (Corey Mylchreest aka Bridgeton’s Prince George) evilly continually broke the fourth wall and lured us into his nefarious schemes, including flirting with both the evil sisters and whether he should snog, marry or avoid?! Too much! (Not to mention blinding and torturing his own father, wrongfully shaming and blaming his own half-brother to exiled wandering and seeking to kill off one of the sister’s husbands too in a wrongful war against King Lear and co). Joseph Kloska (Gloucester) brought a real bewildered tenderness, particularly when he was to be horribly maimed by his own son. Doug Colling was fantastic as an emotionally involving Edgar — kindly leading his own father and thankfully staying clothed in the ‘Poor Tom’ scene. (Yes National Theatre Simon Russell Beale version I’m looking at you here!) Yet he made this believable. Even gently hiding his father during the battle scene — although due to editing, he never got rescued again from his hiding place! Caleb Obediah brought pathos and dignity as the husband of one of the sisters and slowly realising that he’d been duped by them all, including one in an outrageous wig (Hugh O’Donnell as Cornwall).

The drama started slowly and with strange over-enunciation, giving a stilted feeling — as well as amazing lighting and moving Henge avenues. But stick with it as the pace picks up pretty quickly and they all start speaking their lines properly — Edgar is fizzing and spitting his to the audience (only needing a moustache to twirl villainously). King Lear here is an unreasonable king grumpy against his daughter endlessly — but we never get the full emotions. Branagh felt too young to be playing the role — he didn’t look aged, but in the prime of life. Another issue is that I’ve seen the Simon Russell Beale version and he was so pathetic, so commanding, so emotionally touching, so unreasonable with his daughter’s hospitality, that nothing else will do. (He’d even studied stroke survivors to see how they moved and spoke, adopting these into his playing of the King).

The storm speech was impressive as part of the stage rose into a Neolithic ramp — and the sky stormed above them. Literally. At another point we were plunged into darkness, which was thrilling. But whilst Cordelia’s death touched by being unexpected and she and Lear lying fragile and dead on the stage together, overall there was less emotional connection throughout. Partly this was because some parts felt rushed due to the edits. We never really got Cordelia’s attempted invasion apart from some spear clashes and her creeping about. Another issue was that Lear’s cantankerousness and mental health deterioration was played for laughs rather than tragedy — right up until the end. He is lovably gruff rather than a deeply pitiable figure who has lost the one who loved him most.

However the two hour intensive never dragged — there were some stand-out performances from the full cast at points — and the speaking was impeccable in terms of volume. Every word could be heard clearly right up in the cheap seats — couldn’t see any mics. Impressive, but in time, more emotion please. Grateful too that the majority of the play was centre stage so that even in the Picasso angles of the upper circle you could see 99.9% Kenneth Branagh! allowing me to appreciate the staging which gave newness and freshness to the play.

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Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!