Barbican Theatre, London – until 23 December 2016
Transferring in to London from Stratford, Antony Sher‘s King Lear is a Shakespearean masterclass. With no headline-grabbing casting to this, one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, the production is a company-driven gem, led by the RSC’s seasoned bill-topper who’s more than earned the right to make the role his own.
Director Gregory Doran plays it just a little bit fast and loose with his time zones. There’s a pre-Christian paganism to the whole affair, that’s punctuated only by a disconcerting (even if rather wonderful) grindhouse-inspired, fluorescently lit glass box for Gloucester’s glorious blinding scene.
There is also a disappointingly politically correct approach to some of the text. Lear tells us on Cordelia’s death that her voice was indeed ever “soft, gentle and low”, however the Bard’s next line, declaring such qualities “an excellent thing in woman” has been shamefully chopped by Doran. Likewise the Fool (fine work from Graham Turner), who typically bows out with an enigmatic reference to his bedtime, is here imbued with an additional dozen or so lines that wistfully lead the audience into the interval.
That juxtaposition means of course that the second half kicks off with act three’s final scene and as mentioned above, it’s an absolute blinder. There’s nothing quite like arcs of blood and smeared vile jelly to truly make one appreciate that interval G&T or vanilla tub!
But enough of the rip-roaring violence (and Bret Yount’s swordfight direction is excellent too), what makes this Lear one of the greats is the sheer beauty of the actors’ craft. Sher is clad in majestic robes of thick animal skin, truly looking every inch the king – making the sight of him reduced to a vest and long johns in the latter scenes of his decline, all the more pitiful.
More than just the visuals though, Sher’s mastery of the prose is unsurpassed. For years he has been honing his craft on the greatest works in English literature and there is a palpable sense of a pinnacle being attained in his performance. Rarely does one see Lear’s molten act one anger, flow so believably into the heartbroken loving tragedy of the final scenes. And when Sher pleads with his daughters to be allowed his retinue of knights, the speech has rarely been spoken with such moving passion.
Sher’s excellence permeates the company. David Troughton’s Gloucester truly stumbles when he saw, with the pathos that develops between him and Oliver Johnstone as Edgar, perfectly nuanced. Not long out of Hamlet’s inky cloak Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund is a believingly irresistible bastard and in what with this being the panto season ‘n all, it’s hard to resist the temptation to boo his delicious devilry. Antony Byrne’s Kent is beautifully weighted too.
Continuing her debut RSC season, Natalie Simpson brings a youthful and honest credibility to Cordelia. Lear’s youngest daughter has always been a woman ahead of her time with Simpson’s interpretation defining the role for the 21st century. Alongside her and continuing the panto analogy, Kelly Williams and Nina Gwynne’s Regan and Goneril are wonderfully monstrous sisters (oh yes they are!). Gwynne in particular touching our hearts as she reels at Lear’s barbaric curse upon her of sterility.
This being the RSC, no expense is spared and the 6 piece band high above the stage deliver Ilona Sekacz’s compositions with a tender elegance that only complements Niki Turners evocative stage design.
Only on for two more weeks and unmissable too. Reason not the need – just get to the Barbican before Christmas.
Runs until 23rd December
Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz