Poor Kenneth Branagh. His West End production of King Lear has been savaged by critics – including the Observer’s Susannah Clapp – as an emotionally stilted, insubstantial affair. Branagh is, of course, a trained Shakespearean actor, although he hasn’t performed on stage in eight years. His luxuriant bouffant – making him possibly the most follicularly blessed Lear since Laurence Olivier – is all Hollywood, as is the surprising third-act revelation that this Lear comes with abs.
I’m being a little unkind. But perhaps theatre audiences could do with a bit more unkindness, particularly when it comes to A-listers. While several good-looking stars got their start treading the boards, more than a few have entered stage right and left it coming off as total planks. (There’s a reason you’ve probably never heard about Ricky Martin’s stint in Evita.)
From a producer’s perspective, casting big-name talent makes sense – Branagh’s production is already a hot ticket in London. But, speaking as someone well acquainted with the cheap seats, there’s nothing more frustrating than getting to a show only to realise they blew the budget on the lead and scrimped on everything else, rendering it completely unwatchable from the nosebleed section. Worse still is the dawning understanding that half the audience is there to distractedly gawp at the celeb. This year, the audience at the Almeida theatre watching A Streetcar Named Desire felt as if it was about to spontaneously combust the second Paul Mescal appeared in a tank top. Blanche who?
Not that this is anything new: back in 2007, I watched Daniel Radcliffe in Equus while sitting in front of a woman who squeaked every time he came on topless. I understand the desire to gawp – I bought those tickets, didn’t I? – but every time I watch a famous person on stage, they’re competing in my head with all the other characters they’ve played. It takes a talented actor who knows to adjust their performance accordingly. By contrast, I spent most of the first act convinced that Kenneth Branagh was doing Lear by way of Gilderoy Lockhart.