The first scene – the infamous division of the kingdom between Lear’s three daughters – is dazzling but the excitement soon peters out. This Lear packs a visual punch but hesitates as to which way to jump and loses most of its emotional impact in the process.
So back to the beginning. Director and co-designer Jean-François Sivadier puts his flair for popular, accessible theatricality to good use. Circus is in the air as ringmaster Lear snaps orders with his fingers and summons spotlights on to his discomfited daughters. Drums roll, actors leap out of the audience, humiliated Kent swings in aerial stocks like a trapeze. Angled platforms set off the showy formality, then unexpectedly break apart as Lear’s sanity starts to disintegrate.
Despite the assured staging and superb lighting, question marks soon hover. Sivadier seems torn between the random cruelty of an inexplicable universe and exploring the complexity of human failings that trigger personal tragedy. Regan and Goneril are humanised only to be abruptly demonised. Edmund (Vincent Guédon) comes across as a two-dimensional comic villain from start to finish, the interpretation of Edgar/poor Tom is oddly subdued (Stephen Butel) and an unconvincing Gloucester (Vincent Dissez) awkwardly combines semi-clowning with gravitas. Caricature and grand guignol win the day. The sisters end up frankly ridiculous as cackling, lusty harpies, and when Gloucester’s eyes are put out, foul liquid spurts halfway across the stage.
Lear, meanwhile, gets a fresh and appealingly human portrayal by forty-something Nicolas Bouchaud. It works during the first half: the jocular magnate with the lion’s laugh, touching and pigheaded, dangerously quiet when thwarted. But he simply doesn’t find the register of frail old age and madness: for all his energy and engagement, we’re kept at arm’s length. Pascal Collin’s ultra-contemporary translation doesn’t help: accessible and packed with “son of a bitch” vernacular but often lacking poetic force and colour.
On the other hand, Norah Krief’s impish Fool is outstanding. I’ve rarely seen such sassy physical complicity and such imaginative use of song. She makes the storm scene memorable, mimicking with Lear the noise and force of the wind and hail on a bare and silent stage.