Showing in The Barbican from 10 November to 23 December 2016 – all the information can be found here.
Gregory Doran strikes again with a gloriously heart-breaking production of King Lear. Shakespeare’s tragedy about a King’s descent into madness after he divides his kingdom and gives it away to his daughters, with its multitude of overlapping storylines, does have a tendency to be overly long, yet not once did the pace drop in this striking performance. Filled with stunning visuals and sound effects, designer Niki Turner made full use of the RST’s versatile stage. King Lear was a treat for the senses as the stage transformed into a raging storm, a throne room, a battlefield and so many more locations, with very minimal set.
Leading the show, the titular character of King Lear is played by the RSC titan that is Antony Sher. His first appearance on stage was heralded by gongs, and he was carried in on a golden throne, high above the rest of the ensemble. No one has ever been more worthy of that pomp and circumstance. His performance was flawless, from imperious king to tremulous madman, from wronged father cursing his child to a father who just wanted his child’s love and affection. He played them all with such ease and credulity that you truly believed all he desired in the end was to ‘laugh at gilded butterflies’.
With such a fantastic performance as Sher’s, there’s always the risk of the rest of the cast dulling in comparison. For the most part, this was not the case. Certainly, David Troughton’s Gloucester more than held his own. In his parallel storyline, Troughton was brought to his knees and blinded. When the two betrayed fathers finally met again in the second act, the air was electric – their despair, madness and grief almost palpable. Similarly, Graham Turner as the Fool rose to the occasion. Turner was able to expertly balance the foolery with the harsh truths his character espouses. At times painfully lewd, Turner manages to pull off the multifaceted character of the Fool with aplomb, leaving the audience feeling his absence (in the second act) very keenly.
“unapologetic in its intensity, and it has a right to be”
A pleasant surprise came in the form of the two brothers, Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) and Edmund (Paapa Essiedu). Johnstone brought Edgar’s initial innocence and boyishness to the fore, making his transformation into poor Tom all the more shocking. Though at times it was uncomfortable to watch, this only made his extreme physical change all the more impressive. Meanwhile, Essiedu’s Edmund provided a dark levity to the piece. With a very understated, yet perversely funny, take on the ‘bastardy? Base, base?’ monologue, Essiedu was a welcome addition to the cast. Similarly, Natalia Simpson was a breath of fresh air. Her Cordelia, which could so easily fall into the trap of sickeningly sweet and irritating, was beautifully honest and pure.
With such a large ensemble, it is difficult to mention them all, yet all of them only served to make the entire play more incredible. Antony Byrne’s grasp on the brusque but forthright Kent was masterful; Marcus Griffith’s France was passionate, sincere and vehement in a way that was lovely to watch; Kelly William’s Regan and Nia Gwyne’s Goneril were gloriously vindictive with enough reasoning at the beginning to make them not entirely unredeemable. To have so much talent and skill on one stage made the whole piece all the more enjoyable.
Doran’s King Lear is unapologetic in its intensity, and it has a right to be. There was no ending with a song and dance for this play because the fact remained that, though the slate was supposedly wiped clean, the question was still thus: what does one do next in a world turned upside down? Apparently the answer is to end on a tableau of sadness, confusion, and acceptance that leaves the audience in a moment of silent awe. In awe that such an incredible production had just played out before them. In awe that they had the honour of watching one Sir Antony Sher perform his artistic magic and in awe that such a diverse and incredible ensemble had just performed an age-old piece in a way that could still captivate and enthral.
Image: Royal Shakespeare Company