Friday 2 September 2016

King Lear - Review

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon


Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran

Nia Gwynne, Natalie Simpson, Antony Sher and Kelly Williams

William Shakespeare's tragedy depicting the 17th Century King's descent into madness has been given a pared down, modern retelling by director Gregory Doran in this new production at the RSC. The audience draw is clearly Antony Sher, taking on the eponymous role (the Stratford run is apparently returns only) but this production has much to commend it.

King Lear decides to abdicate & divide his kingdom between his three daughters. He asks each of them to make a public declaration of their love for him. When his youngest daughter, Cordelia, (Natalie Simpson) refuses, she is disinherited, marries the King of France with no dowry & the elder daughters Goneril (Nia Gwynne) & Regan (Kelly Williams) inherit. And so the story of destruction begins. 

From the outset, the seemingly monastic set, looming bare brick walls & a huge rear iron door, invite us to the openness of the Swan stage. Set designer Niki Turner has created a world of angles, cubes & clean simplicity. The costumes would not look out of place on a couture runway; the female gowns are artful, flowing but with bodice structure or faux breastplates, rhinestone embellishment or matte sequin "armour". However exquisite, the costumes never overshadow the actors but seem to empower them.

When Antony Sher enters, carried aloft within a gilt glass box, enveloped in an enormous fur coat and hat, he looks majestically ursine. His Lear appears huge when the audience first encounters him, both in stature and arrogance. Sher proceeds to disintegrate before our eyes, mentally and physically, totally engaging the audience throughout the 3 hour duration. Even within the play's unremitting bleakness, Sher keeps the man behind the monarch the pivotal focus.

An exciting and diverse cast move across the stage seamlessly. Doran's deft direction allows the actors' performances to flourish, unencumbered, allowing Shakespeare's text to sing. This is a version vicious, visceral and venomous.

James Clyde as the Duke Of Cornwall and Kelly William's Regan open Act 2 with a scene of torture, which is bold but quite brilliant in the way the actors convey the utter callousness and casual acceptance of their evil. He takes out a man's eyes as the blood drips through his hands and she stabs a servant who protests as if crushing a spider. In a neon glass torture chamber cube, centre stage, they are delightfully despicable. Tim Mitchell's lighting is akin to an unnamed character here, highlighting the macabre.

David Troughton brings a heartfelt realism to the Earl of Gloucester, a man who disinherits his legitimate son Edgar and believing the lies of his bastard son Edmund, is forced into hiding to save his life. His later scenes were poignant and physically compelling whilst cast-out in the unknown, dealing with blindness. 

Graham Turners' Fool has the commitment of an old Broadway hoofer with an infectious Northern confidence. Both actors have integral scenes with Sher's Lear that are so warm & connected, you completely believe the relationships of these men are endearingly enduring.

As Edgar, Oliver Johnstone is tremendously exciting, using every inch of the stage, blood stained, conveying a manic craziness to his very toenails. Johnstone's physical acting is bold & top notch. Concealing his true identity to his blinded father, you can almost smell the frustration and pain from Johnstone. Head in hands his body expresses as much as his words do.

And then there was Paapa Essiedu. He plays Edmund with such authority and conviction it's startling. His delightful diction makes bullets of choice words; he brings a modern voice to this Shakespeare text as if hearing the speeches anew. When you feel like someone's up on the stage just chatting with you, something good is happening. Mr Essiedu does that. And the audience lapped it up. 

Sher is outstanding in this marvellous rendition but what elevates this production is the cast working together in harmony, telling a well-told tale, in a new and vibrant way. Truly a great night at the theatre.

Runs in Stratford upon Avon until 23rd October, then transferring to the Barbican Theatre London from 10th November to 23rd December
Reviewed by Andy Bee
Photo credit : Ellie Kurttz

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