Theatre 2016 – King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Thursday, August 25th 2016 – King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

This has very much been the year of Lear for us, with one already under our belts (Michael Pennington at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton) but now we were heading into the one we’ve very much been looking forward to. The Royal Shakespeare Company with  Sir Antony Sher in the title role, directed by Gregory Doran. I think it’s fair to say that Sher is very much the quintessential Shakespearean actor so we were very keen to see what he would make of it. It was superb!

Prior to the production there was a director’s talk with Greg Doran sitting in the theatre talking about the production and answering a handful of questions from the audience, though he was somewhat constrained by the need to be done in 45 minutes so the stage could be readied for the evening performance. He was especially interesting on the idea of ritual in the play and that would later come across very clearly.

The play started impressively with much chanting from the cast and Lear appearing, carried shoulder high like some sort of icon in a religious procession. The “litter” consisted of a perspex box that gave the impression of containing incense smoke, and went a long way towards suggesting a king who believes himself to be at the very least the direct representative of the gods (divine right to rule and all that firmly in place), if not thinking himself their equal. The costumes settled somewhere to the north and east, with an imperial Russian tinge to them though nothing you could squarely put your finger on. Of the daughters, Regan (Kelly Williams) and Goneril (Nia Gwynne) were both spectacularly dressed, while Cordelia (Natalie Simpson) was all in white, relatively plainly dressed compared to her sisters.

© 2016 Ellie Kurttz
© 2016 Ellie Kurttz

The performance was off to a terrific start and it continued in much the same way. Sher played the role with his usual attack, putting in a powerhouse performance, showing how Lear is already failing even before he takes the decisions that put him on the road to destruction and death. His voice is somewhat tremulous and petulant, and he lets his hands tremble even as the king divides up his kingdom between the two daughters who flatter him (and that was brilliantly done as you saw them trying to figure out what to say to ensure they would get their share, a lovely interpretation of the scene). Even so Lear is larger than life, larger than everyone around him in terms of character, and it comes as shock towards the end to see him standing between some of the other men to recall that Sher is actually quite small of stature. Not on stage he isn’t though. It’s a brilliant performance, and I liked the way the production made you feel some sympathy for all of his daughters, not just Cordelia. When his troublesome retinue behave riotously and offensively towards their hostess you can see the sisters’ point when they say they really don’t want his men billeted on them. You can also see their frustration at having to deal with their unreasonable father, and increasingly their hostility to each other.

All three women put in great supporting performances, though Cordelia in many ways is a bit “wet”, not the actresses fault, the part is written that way. And at least when she reappears at the head of the French army she does grow considerably less wet. Of the others in the cast, David Troughton powers through the part of Gloucester, only able to see once he loses his eyes (and that was a particularly nasty version of the eye-gouging scene though I think even when it happens offstage – and I’ve seen performances where that has been done – the sheer horror of the imagery conjured by the words is enough to give you the shudders).

Edmund (Paapa Essiedu) put the emphasis on his characters glee in setting people against each other be it Goneril and Regan (and it’s quite clear he’s not really interested in marrying either of them expect for power), or his half brother (Edgar) and his father (Gloucester), but again given how he is treated early on by his father you find yourself having some sympathy for him, though not for long. In respect of the pleasure he takes from his scheming he’s a textbook Shakespearean villain.

Kent (Anthony Byrne) was another to impress with a performance that showed you a man of principle, determined to stick by the king he’d sworn his loyalty to. It’s a very physical performance, and he comes across as a man of action not words, the sort of man who would struggle to tell you what he felt but is quite capable of showing you!

As Edgar, Oliver Johnstone has in some ways the hardest job as he has to pretend to be mad while looking after his father post-blinding before stepping up as the hero who confronts his duplicitous half-brother at the end. I though he played what can be a bit of a wooden part remarkably well and was especially good when he attempts to pull Gloucester back from the brink of self-destruction.

The staging was relatively minimal, apart from the perspex enclosure which stood in for all sorts of things, and a platform that was raised at one point (during the storm scene) to a level that had me fearing for the actors before the words took me back into the action again. The wilderness was suggested by a single tree and an almost white stage and backdrop, and there were brick walls for the flies but apart from that the scenery seemed almost an afterthought and largely irrelevant given the strength of the acting on stage.

My verdict is see it now! It transfers to the Barbican later this year (10th November to 23rd December) and is also being screened live in selected cinemas on October 12th so it should be relatively easy to catch, but to see a great actor at the peak of his powers (and I’m reminded that it’s 32 years since he blew us away in Richard III back in 1984) it’s got to be worth attempting to make it to the theatre if you possibly can.

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