Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 15 October
Then Barbican Theatre, London
A SERIOUS, DARK-TONED MORALITY… The court is ancient, formal, superstitious. Hunched and huddled figures, anonymously poor, scuttle aside for the courtiers to assemble. When the King arrives it is beneath a great gold disc: this is a gilded, jewelled monarch glittering in a glass-box litter. There is in Niki Turner’s design perhaps an echo of Oriental power style: one remembers Gregory Doran’s haunting ANJIN and ORPHAN OF ZHAO. The King Lear he gives us in directing here us is certainly majestic, detached: pointedly uninvolved with the scuttling masses under their disguising hoods. His court though is all too human.
In one of the intelligent touches of detail, Gloucester’s joking speech about his bastard son Edmund sees Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund well in earshot, his back view visibly irritated by the parental joshing about the fun his Dad had conceiving him. The moment of body-language explains his imminent treachery. So does Goneril’s: parroting her speech of devotion Nia Gwynne seems to dry momentarily, gulps, carries on: already, the weight of this intimate tyranny is too much. Kelly Williams’ Regan, younger and so perhaps less damaged, is smoother, snakelike, sadistic (it’s her debut RSC season, and a sharp one). As for Edgar’s first appearance, kicking a football around in insouciant contrast to his clenchedly angry brother, character instantly rises to the surface here too.
This is not a King Lear which tugs urgently at the heartstrings as some do, nor one in which the king’s rising dementia is broadly signalled. Antony Sher’s king is old, certainly, and arrogantly regal but slow-spoken at first, high on his throne. Only the sudden fierceness of Antony Byrne’s vigorous Kent gives us an indication that the great Oz up there is mad already, crumbling from within his dignities. It is a production in which, without scenic fuss (though with some startling devices in the storm scene) Doran characteristically drills down to the odd, unsettling essence of the text. Here ,in its monochrome visual tones, is emphasised the nihilism: those chiming repetitions of the word “nothing”, and the way that Lear, and others, constantly turn upwards to invoke , entreat or blame ‘gods’. Which invocation does nothing at all for them. There are no gods, whether making instruments of our “pleasant vices” , killing us for their sport, or (in Lear’s terrible malediction) bringing sterility on thankless daughters.
The only hope lies is in ourselves: in Kent, bluff and angrily Yorkshire, in the camp, helpless Fool (Graham Turner) again using northernness to mock his master; in naive faithful Gloucester, and above all in Edgar: a particularly vivid, moving performance by Oliver Johnstone, who handles the unnervingly modernist Poor-Tom madness while maintaining in moments aside a touching, decent-schoolboy, dismay. I have rarely seen the clifftop scene more moving. “Thy life’s a miracle” says Edgar and his father, “Henceforth I’ll bear affliction”. It is the pivot of the play, the one gleam of hope, the affirmation of mere naked endurance. The gods won’t help, so men must endure their going forth.
And Sher himself? As ever, hard to take your eyes off, whether in his gilded opening, striding through his daughters’ homes in heavy furs and heated rage, or sitting momentarily thoughtful and afraid joshing with his Fool. His eyes glitter between grey thatch and bristling beard, his steps falter, his urgency grows to listen in madness to the naked Poor Tom – “Is Man no more than this?”.
At last, his final scenes let your heart move. But not before, in this production rich with intellectual seriousness, you have been made to think.
0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 15th Oct in Stratford, then Barbican. In cinemas nationwide from 12 Oct.