• King Lear
  • King Lear
  • King Lear
  • King Lear


"…Her performance at the Leicester Haymarket should help to dispel the notion that anyone attempting this king needs to be equipped with balls and a barrel chest. Under the direction of Helena Kaut-Howson, Hunter has a shrivelled asexuality of extreme old age (…) Her voice is thready rather than throaty, her cadences measured, deliberate, not rolling. Her gestures are small an d careful: her fingers have a persistent tremor; when she curses Goneril- ‘if she must teem’ – the word ‘teem’ is accomplished by a quick dip of the hand, as if to mimic a shoal of fish’… She delivers ‘Oh let me not be mad’ calmly and precisely as if she were methodically sorting through all the available bad options, “Howl, howl, howl!” is spoken with meticulous exploratory balefulness. It is a coherent, intelligent interpretation, occasionally underpowered in the early scenes, but soaring in the later, more tender exchanges … It is difficult to imagine another actor conveying such total absorption."

Susanna Clapp, ‘New Statesman’ , 7 March 1997

‘In this superb production director Helena Kaut-Howson places her emphasis on the vulnerability of old age. ‘…’casting of Kathryn Hunter in the title role is an inspiration. Hunter is a small woman, smaller even than Cordelia- the youngest of Lear’s daughters, but her slightness is an asset in this production as we see her helpless in a wheelchair. Or see her seated with shaking hands on the edge of an armchair (…) In Hunter’s thoughtful interpretation, Lear does not rage with fury as Cordelia spurns him. Instead his distress and need for love are painfully evident. Kaut Howson achieves a wonderful sense of impending change- everything and everyone is on the move and the play pulsates with inspired energy…”

Isobel Campbell, Morning Star, 11 June 1997

"She brings great integrity to Lear’s sudden chastening insight into the plight of the unfortunate. Tremendous poignancy to the madness, and quiet heart-breaking sorrow to the death of Cordelia.

But just to focus on Hunter is to do injustice to the rest of the production. This is not one of those stagings where an actor is essaying the Great Part and everyone else is limping miles behind. This is organic, clear, fluent, well-spoken and played with great energy. Pawel Dobrzycki’s design suggests a background without pinning it down. The dress is roughly modern, the set flanked by steel scaffolding and backed by huge wooden doors. The map Lear produces is of Britain, but the preponderance of fur hats, the iron stoves and the bleak, snowy weather is more reminiscent of some middle-European country, it is a place where enmity between cans and families rumbles ominously, where people are frequently on the move or on the run. Certainly, the fear of being dispossessed and displaced fits the context."

Sarah Hemming, Financial Times

If the current state of Britain were to reflect a Shakespeare play, many might hope for Richard II: weak and despised leader brutally deposed. But with Boris Johnson resisting that plot, it is King Lear – a nation disintegrating amid a sense of everything ending – that feels most apt. Started by Helena Kaut-Howson but realised by the cast as the director recovers from injury, the new Globe production stresses these topicalities. Costumes are modern and performers verbally underline the repeated negativities – “nothing”, “worst”, “madness” – that echo harshly across the text. Kathryn Hunter reprises a title role she first played for Kaut-Howson in 1997. Though it is now common for women to play male classical parts – and “authentic” casting for Lear would require an octogenarian who had lost his mind and children – such productions often feminise the characters (Prospera, Malvolia), or provide explanatory context: performance in a women’s prison, say, or in Glenda Jackson’s 2016 Old Vic Lear, cross-gendering as a rehearsal room exercise. Hunter’s first Lear used the framing of a performance by care home residents, but this time she trusts her extraordinary transformative powers to play it as written. She is explicitly an elderly king, channelling the higher voice and epicene appearance that falling hormones can cause in male old age. Long white wispy hair atop Hunter’s slight frame gives the paradoxical appearance of a geriatric child, although with enough menace in the voice (every syllable crisply hit) to have cowed the court until now. The extreme yoga agility that is a signature of many Hunter performances – including some steepling gymnastics in the recent Almeida revival of Ionesco’s The Chairs – is deliberately suppressed here to convincingly suggest frailty.

Mark Lawson, The Guardian


King Lear is, of course, one of Shakespeare’s most challenging – and well-loved – plays. Featuring a plethora of beautiful speeches from both the titular character and others, a potent production cannot help but amaze – and director Helena Kaut-Howson’s production does succeed, with a few caveats. Shakespeare’s Globe, London Back in the role she first played in 1997, Hunter uses her extraordinary transformative powers to show us the king as a geriatric child at the head of a disintegrating nation Lear is a wintry tale and a premiere on the sunniest day of the year made some early scenes feel, in every sense, too light. But the mood darkened with the sky above our disunited kingdom and the final Lear-Cordelia scene was almost unbearably affecting. Hunter takes her place, with Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Paul Scofield (on film), and Glenda Jackson among the Lears seared in my mind.

Michael Higgs

"Kathryn Hunter’s performance in the title role is startlingly effective perhaps in part because Lear’s interpretation emphasises his age rather than his masculinity. Hunter’s hoarse, crusty voice has the range to pull off the leading role and gives some of the speeches an unforeseen twist. Ultimately the effect is to emphasise Lear’s humanity. The aged king becomes more Everyman than man. Director Helena Kaut-Howson’s production is everything a tragedy should be – disturbing, thought provoking a d heart wrenching. A clutch of magnificent performances brings horror, comedy and tragedy to the play in turn, ranging from commedia dell’arte trickery of Marcello Magni’s Fool, to the devious, self-seeking rancour of Goneril (Kate Seaward) and Regan (Gabrielle Reidy) and the stalwart innocence of Cordelia (Hayley Carmichael)

Alison Mercer ‘The Stage’

“Cross gendering should not just be a gimmick. Nor is it in Helena Kaut-Howson’s fascinating Young Vic co-production, with Kathryn Hunter following Fiona shaw’ in one of the great Shakespearean roles. Hunter , no classical actress (?!) achieves the remarkable feat of somehow synthesizing both genders: she is both male and female , a diminutive ashen faced figure, white hair flowing like a carbon copy of becket’s crucified Lucky-yet maternal, cradling the sightless Gloucester in her arms, and embodying in her hunched figure, one of the shames of our age, the forlorn, pathetic inmate of and old people’s home (…) Quirkily affecting, especially in her later stages Kaut Howson surrounds Hunter with a hard working ensemble and brutalised ambience whose geopolitical centre is clearly drawn from the mayhem and genocide of recent events in Eastern European its emotional terrain unmistakably Beckettian, given a steely slant in Polish designer setting”

Carole Waddis ‘The Glasgow Herald’, King Lear at TOKYO GLOBE 1998

‘I was overwhelmed by the production and by Kathryn Hunter's performance. I have seldom seen acting of such depth and truth (…). What I admired most about Kathryn Hunter’s performance, was her awareness, at each moment of the focus and nuance of what she was saying, and the passionate simplicity with which she asked Lear’s terrifying questions, so that one’s own heart was pierced by them. There was a naïve and genuine puzzlement in the question ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’, which broke open the aesthetic barriers that usually prevent a performance from touching the audience deeply. This simplicity and naivety are right for Lear, who is not a complicated man and whose deepest trait is reckless generosity – coupled with the assumption that gratitude is owed him for it.

Kathryn Hunter is a tiny woman, but not for one moment did her Lear lack authority (…) One understood why this king was so feared and loved. Her Lear was fiercely male, though with that androgenous quality you find in the old of both sexes. I think that her being a woman brought into focus certain themes of the play: Lear’s misogyny, for example. The laying of the curse of sterility on Goneril was appalling spoken by her(...) And partly because of the ‘prelude’ , that in this production was put before the true opening of the play, – the puzzled tenderness Lear displays toward the corpse of Cordelia took on a deeply mysterious quality: it was as though an old woman near death were gazing on the long gone semblance of her youth, unable to understand what she had once been, and what she had felt almost a lifetime ago.

The eclectic, modern dress look of the production reminiscent of North-Eastern Europe, worked splendidly for this play. Kaut-Howson’s direction took great care to ensure that every line was involved with the reality of the play, never drifting off into the merely ‘poetic’. Too many productions of Shakespeare’s plays, including Peter Hall ‘s ‘King Lear’ which came to the Old Vic last Autumn, take the storyline for granted(…) In the case of this ‘Lear’, because the story was told so well and also because the ensemble work was so fine, the production was constantly interesting, and often (rightly) very funny, full of incident and sudden, startling illuminations, always pointing to the heart of the matter. Somehow the vast space of the play was there, so that the stage seemed open to all the enwinds, wild and primitive, a place where myths could grow and take shape. Finally, for some reason that is still obscure to me, the fairy tale quality of the play took on the grim inevitability and magic resonance of the darker North Europeans tales, desolate yet strangely comforting.

The Young Vic Theatre and KPP production of King Lear is being performed at Tokyo Globe from November 21st to 29 th Tickets etc (….)

Timothy J. H.

© Helena Kaut-Howson 2021