My second Lear of this month is rather more traditional and definitely much safer than the one over at the Old Vic.
Another collaboration from RSC power couple Antony Sher and Gregory Doran, this Lear is opulent, regal, but, except for David Troughton’s magnificent Gloucester and Natalie Simpson’s sweet Cordelia, the play is strangely unmoving.
A very lengthy opening scene has the displaced and homeless sitting on the stage until they are rudely scattered ready for the entrance of the king, a Sher hunched up and swathed in furs, with a rasping voice. He appears behind glass which is slowly lowered to reveal the full majesty.
He gives away his kingdom to the empty flattery of his daughters, who clearly loathe him (later, each will recoil from his offered embrace), and in a first display of a mind in disorder, disowns his ‘joy’, Cordelia, cast adrift in her bridal gown to be taken up by a sympathetic King of France.
Antony Byrne portrays Kent and in disguise, particularly, as a tattooed skinhead, he excels, and his final scene is well played. Graham Turner plays a Fool first confident, funny and chatty, but eventually bewildered in the eye of the storm. We do not see him in the second half, as is usual, but we are concerned for his survival.
As the brothers who war due to the one’s legitimacy and the other’s bastardy, Paapa Essiedu was not convincing for me due to his total sarcasm for all around him and his throwaway asides; better was Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar who went from a bookish fop through impersonation as Poor Tom to sword-wielding champion with ease.
The relationship between Regan (Kelly Williams) and Cornwall (James Clyde) is presented very much as one orchestrated by her (when he is mortally wounded and asks for her hand, she coldly walks away without a glance). I much preferred Nia Gwynne’s Goneril, a lady with pure ice in her veins.
The eye-gouging scene may be misjudged – I had trouble hearing lines spoken within the perspex box from the stalls, so I feel for the gallery – but the effect is probably on a par with the thrown eyeball over at the Old Vic.
Where this production misses for me is the final mental disintegration of Lear. I was not moved either by his recognition of Cordelia or his ‘howl, howl’ at her death. And I know Sher has the emotional pull in other roles (his superb Willy Loman, for example, so this was a surprise).
I am glad to have had the opportunity to see both London Lears at such close proximity, and both have much to recommend them. So see both if you can, but you have to move quick to see Glenda Jackson in the role (to December 3rd).
The RSC King Lear continues at the Barbican until December 23rd.