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  • Writer's pictureMackenzie Elisa

Kenneth Branagh's King Lear Review

As a Shakespeare nerd, I felt it necessary to see Kenneth Branagh do his thing live- and he did not disappoint! He truly commands the stage as if he truly were the king of ancient Britain. He's a bit young to be playing King Lear, but his mastery of the text is unmatched and he commands the space like none other. Kenneth Branagh is an incredibly popular and revered Shakespearean actor, he's very good at what he does- BUT 'what he does' is not always the most popular with some Shakespeareans. His performances between Shakespeare's characters are often very similar and consist of a lot of yelling. Personally, I'm not necessarily bothered by any of this. I think he plays his characters with precise commitment and truly understands the text. That being said, none of his performances are "ground breaking" or particularly fun and fresh. He's a traditional Shakespearean actor who brings a lot of gusto to his roles, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I appreciate his performances for what they are, extremely solid. He's certainly one of the best at what he does. I almost want to draw a strange parallel between him and the leading actor from Shakespeare's company, Richard Burbage. Both Branagh and Burbage have the same repertoire of roles. The concept of "type" within casting is as ancient as can be, but I just can't help thinking about Burbage's Shakespeare career when I think of Branagh, and how the two just might be a bit similar. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but that's just my hot take of the day.


Everything about this production from a design standpoint was beautiful. The color palette of cool blues and earthy tones was stunning and fitting for this storm-set play. The set itself consisted of Stone Henge-like stones and a gorgeous starry sky. The sound design and lighting were gorgeous. The only thing I didn't like (and really didn't) was the use of projections. Occasionally there were projections of actors' faces or battle montages on the back rocks, and I just didn't think they served much of a purpose. I found them more distracting than anything.


Next to Kennth Branagh himself, the stand-out performance goes to Corey Mylchreest as Edmund. If that name sounds familiar, that's because he is the one and only King George III in Queen Charlotte, a Bridgerton Story (AKA my mom's favorite actor). Due to the length of the play, we don't get to see quite as much of his journey as I would've liked, but I thought he matched Branagh in energy and specificity.


Here's the catch- the play was two hours with no intermission. Two hours. For King Lear. WHAT?! For context, Lear ran at The Globe last summer with no cuts to the text, and the performance time was 3 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission. I was nervous going into it how it was going to work, since King Lear is one of Shakespeare's longest plays and the depth of the text really needs that much time to be explored. Spoiler alert: it didn't translate in two hours. Branagh's cut of the play was incredibly fast-paced and action-packed, so much so that it became almost cinematic. This pacing has been compared to that of Macbeth's, Shakespeare's shortest (and, I guess, most cinematic) play. What got cut, you ask? The heart and soul of the play. All of the beautiful poetry and soliloquies. We missed so much of Lear's journey due to this, and didn't get to spend much time with any of the characters. This was not the King Lear that I love so dearly and is considered to be Shakespeare's "crowning artistic achievement." We lost so much of the exploration of the range of human emotions, which I would consider to be much of the heart of the play. It lost so much of its tragic power because of this. Not to mention that Kenneth Branagh's younger Lear didn't work with the textual nods to his weakening and frail body. This undermined the power of the feeble and old Lear's final moments being spent carrying in the body of his daughter, Cordelia. Branagh's 'madness' was also a more Hamlet-like manic madness instead of that of an aging man. That didn't make sense grammatically, but that's just how I feel about it.


Overall, It was a gorgeous and striking production. Kenneth Branagh is a force of Shakespeare, regardless of if this production specifically ticked all my "King Lear Boxes."


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