Barbican Centre, London – until 23 December 2016
LUKE JONES ON THE RSC’s NEW LEAR (interesting contrast of response with LP’s Stratford review. We both love Essiedu’s Edmund though!)
You’re not to know this, but King Lear bears the proud seal of ‘The Best Shakespeare Play According to Luke Jones’. It pleasingly eschews the clunk of the others. Where most are a web throughout, Lear has an easy setup, clearly defined bust-ups all of which turns shit-shaped in a thrillingly desperate way. If there were ever a Shakespeare play less in need of a concept or re-versioning it is this one.
I see and appreciate that the director Gregory Doran has aimed to reflect this clean simplicity. The stage is either neat brick or bright white and the only disturbances on stage are either actors, big chairs or branches. They have tried to give the drama of this bloody, vindictive and mad play the space to play out. Unfortunately what should be simple and sharp, reads as bare and saggy.
Anthony Sher is the bright face on the programme, but his Lear and his gurgling, oddly flat and timid voice which weigh it down. It has the whiff of a performance which thinks it’s a heart-wrenchingly Olivier turn, when in fact it’s just well annunciated reading. Sher perks a little as Lear’s madness sets in, but for the most-part every emotional highlight is squandered.
“Let me not be mad”, Sher says to the fool, in what should be him tipping into decline. Instead it’s chewed by an over-RSC’d delivery and shouted to the back of the stalls. The same is true of Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Reagan (Kelly Williams) who don’t quite navigate the path from wronged daughters to blood-thirsty abusers. I’m not moved for the same reason I’m not moved by the performances in TV adverts. It’s too mannered and lacks depth.
Doran seems to have them in. Some wildness rages, but for most of it tempers don’t boil naturally, madness doesn’t ring true and emotional reunions as a result don’t satisfy. It’s all a little surface.
The gold-plated exceptions to this are star turns by Papa Essiedu as the conniving power-seducer Edmund and Oliver Johnstone as the wronged Edgar. As Lear’s brood slightly fuck-up giving us the fucked-up siblings, it’s these two that deliver. Both have a gloriously genuine delivery. Essiedu has a bully’s charm I think we’d all like in our arsenal and Johnstone’s reuniting with bloody Gloucester land almost all the production’s emotional punches. You can’t take your eye sockets off them.
This, and dynamic script in the first place, kick the whole thing along.
Do not come if you’re in the mood for a towering central performance. But if you’ve the patience and the predisposition for the play, hold hands, splash some cold water on your face in the interval and it’ll be fine.
Box Office 01789 403493 Until 23rd December