Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 21st September, 2016
Gregory Doran’s new production of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy has an austere, almost Spartan feel. The aesthetic is medieval but it’s as much Middle Eastern as it is Middle Ages, an interesting setting that could be Now, could be Then. Here, the homeless and the dispossessed remind us of the refugees we see on the news on a daily basis (and also, extras on The Walking Dead!)
Lear makes a grand entrance, carried in on a chair in a glass box, paraded around like he’s an old relic. In his opening scene, Antony Sher shows us the power of the king, albeit dwindling, as well as giving us glimpses of the mental deterioration that is to come. It’s a commanding performance, in more ways than one, but Sher is at his most powerful in his quieter moments, in the details of his dementia, when he is recognisable and relatable as a human being in distress rather than a declaiming, despotic head of state.
Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams soon show their colours as evil daughters Goneril and Regan, while Natalie Simpson’s Cordelia makes a sweet impression that lasts – she has to; she disappears from the stage until after the interval. Antony Byrne is a suitably heroic and noble Kent, disguising himself as a skinhead, and Graham Turner works hard to wring laughs from the Fool’s babblings, like a Dave Spikey in his underwear.
The RSC’s current golden boy Paapa Essiedu is deliciously wicked as the bastard Edmund, displaying a casual facility with the language and conveying a sense of being at home in the world of the play. Surely a Richard III can’t be too far in his future. Oliver Johnstone has a harder time of it as his brother Edgar. Those Poor Tom mad scenes are not an easy act, but Johnstone throws himself into them with gusto and, by the time Edgar is reunited with his blinded father (the redoubtable David Troughton, marvellous as ever), we see how far he has come from his early foppishness. The reunion between father and son is the most touching moment of the evening.
Niki Turner’s design gives us open landscape, punctuated by a lone, barren tree. It’s almost Beckettian, as Lear and Poor Tom prattle and wait for Godot. Music by Ilona Sekacz is largely percussive – key moments are underscored by drum rolls and crashes.
The only thing I question is Lear’s final scene, when he mourns the loss of Cordelia. He rolls in on the back of a farmer’s cart for some reason, cradling her in his arms. It makes for a striking Pietà, but I can’t help wondering where he got the cart and who is pushing it. Oh, and in the blinding scene, which is literally eye-popping, the Perspex torture booth with its fluorescent lighting seems out of keeping with the rest, suddenly wrenching the action into the present – in which case, it works as an alienation effect, shocking us into considering the play’s currency. Which, I guess, is fair enough.
A more than serviceable production, excellently played – but then, I never really enjoy Lear, as such – showing us a world where violence and madness reign. In that respect, it’s the perfect play for 2016.