As the baby boom generation moves into old age, ageing audiences, and ageing actors, are increasingly drawn to King Lear which is now staged more frequently than Hamlet. This year alone we’ve already seen Timothy West’s Lear in Bristol, Don Warrington’s in Manchester and Michael Pennington’s in Northampton and later this year Glenda Jackson will play it at The Old Vic in London. Greg Doran’s is the third production of King Lear at the RSC in five years; David Farr directed Greg Hicks as Lear in 2011 and Tim Crouch directed Paul Copley in 2012.
This is also the third of three major productions in three consecutive years for the director/actor team of Greg Doran and Antony Sher following Henry IV part 1 and 2 in 2014 and Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman in 2015 and there is a sense that Lear is the conclusion of a trilogy.
The programme notes emphasise the contemporary relevance of the play, with a divided kingdom and a ruling class out of touch with the people. This is, though, a period production and Sher’s is a pre-Christian Lear whose power is absolute and whose curses upon his daughters are real. The set is minimal; the stage is covered in a tarpaulin, which will be hoisted up during the storm on the heath before being flown out completely, and the back of the stage is a bare brick wall. This too will fly out in the second half to reveal white walls and Edgar sitting under a Godot-esque tree.
As we enter the auditorium, hooded beggars are already on stage, then, as the houselights go down, black-clad courtiers chase them away before Lear is carried on shoulder high in a perspex box, indicative of both his status and his isolation. Lear enters dressed in an enormous fur coat which both bulks up his size and weighs him down but after his impressively staged entrance Antony Sher’s physical presence is weak. This is a tired Lear, exhausted by age and high office and reduced to the appearance of sovereignty only. Compared with Jonathan Pryce’s energy and vigour at The Almeida in 2012 (Pryce was only two years younger than Sher is now when he played it) and Simon Russell Beale’s intimidating, Stalinesque dictator at the National Theatre in 2014 Sher feels underwhelming in the role. Vocally he sounds, at times, rather like Paul Scofield, an impression reinforced by his enormous fur hat which resembles the one worn by Scofield in Peter Brook’s 1971 film. Unlike Scofield, though, his voice is weak; he has a nasal whine and a gravelly throat which, together with his slow, precise diction, limits his range and, while playing a tired Lear may be a valid artistic choice, it felt a lot like watching a tired actor.
The supporting cast is good but inconsistent. Natalie Simpson, Marcus Griffiths and Theo Ogundipe are excellent as Cordelia, France and Burgundy, and Antony Byrne is a tough, hardened warrior Kent but Graham Turner plays a generic Fool, David Troughton blasts his way through the play as a declamatory Gloucester, sacrificing any suggestion of intimacy with or love for his sons in favour of grandstanding histrionics, and Paapa Essiedu makes no effort to play Edmund’s subtle deception and opts instead for a transparently nasty, sneering villain.
The staging is simple, the narrative is clear and there are some interesting and thought-provoking images. While Lear enters in a perspex box, Gloucester is blinded in one, suggesting an equivalent confinement and spectacle between the two men and the two scenes, the difference being that Lear’s box is speckled with gold and Gloucester’s ends up splattered with blood. The image of an eclipse runs through the show, first as a piece of the set consisting of two discs, one gold and one black, and then echoed in the costumes of the cast; Lear, Gloucester, Cordelia and the Fool end the play dressed in white while the rest of the cast is in black.
Doran goes for a kind of Russian doll effect to mark the stages of Lear’s decline, shedding layers of clothing and attendants as his authority is stripped from him. Much was made in the press about the cast of unpaid local extras who play the beggars and attendants but Lear’s knights were very subdued and well-behaved the night I saw it and the beggars decorate the set without being integrated into the action.
So, a good Lear, with glimpses of something stranger and more interesting beneath its traditional period presentation, but not one to stand out in a crowded field and there is little here to challenge accusations of a creeping conservatism which has gripped the RSC under Greg Doran’s stewardship.