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Review of King Lear (Dir. Greg Doran, starring Antony Sher)

RSC September 2016

What could be better for lovers of King Lear than to see it performed in Stratford-upon-Avon with Antony Sher in the lead role? I'd seen Sher as Richard III, Macbeth and Falstaff (Henry IV parts one and two) and he was excellent in all of them. Sadly he wasn't as good in the role of Lear - indeed the whole production was flawed. Please understand that I went with good intent and I so want to support the theatre - but it just wasn't good enough.

I don't go to the theatre looking for flaws, I go to be caught up with the unique magic, which is Theatre. It can be life-changing, full of wonder, an education, an emotional experience, a magical journey. Sadly, this was none of the above.

(spoiler alert) To discuss the play, I have to, well, discuss the play - so here goes...

Let me start by saying that the Cordelia death scene at the end has a backdrop partition lifting and Lear wheeled in on a hay-cart with Cordelia already draped across his lap (a la pieta). Apart from looking comedically inappropriate, this misses the point entirely - it is Lear who should stagger on presenting the lifeless body of his daughter. He must parade the vulagrity of her death to everyone present. His carrying her is as if to say 'Look at this! Look what they have done!' Instead, riding a Hay-cart meant they were BOTH presented - and by something resembling a small carnival float. It may be argued that Sher (now 67) could not carry her - but the actress was very slight - and if he needed helpers they could have helped him. But a Hay-cart! I suppose at least she wasn't dragged on in a sack as she was in last years Liverpool Playhouse production (precious daughter eh?)

When Lear is out in the storm, and drenched with little hope of proper shelter, there is a scene where he contemplates for the first time the plight of the homeless. It is the start of his journey from a King to a man, and shows the beginnings of compassion:

"Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta'en
Too little care of this!" (Act 3, Scene 4)

In this RSC version (as Antony Sher says these words) we are treated to a procession of homeless people walking in and off stage to illustrate the point. But Lear's words 'whereso'er you are' suggest that the homeless wretches are probably not immediately visible. The point is that his softening heart can imagine the plight of unseen others (in this storm) - that is the demonstration of his growing empathy and awareness. Every one of these homeless extras had their 'Houseless heads' covered - thus giving them some degree of shelter. This 'clunky' way of illustrating a point was threaded throughout the whole production.

Sher's delivery was unmodulated throughout the whole of the pre interval section - he was just a man shouting. Only after the interval did we start to hear softer tones which too remained unmodulated for the whole of the second half. Lear's madness in Act 4, Scene 6 was played for laughs - when in realty his words are amongst the most haunting and profound lines in the whole of English Literature.

The Fool (Graham Turner) was hammed up throughout - gawping and by turns thrusting his hips sexually, grabbing his crotch, then looking down the front of his pants. The more he presented this caricature, the more the audience loved it ('isn't Shakepeare wonderful?') The function of the Fool is to perceive what the King cannot and tell him what is going on - especially the error of his ways. He is arguably the wisest character in the whole play. It is no mistake that he and Cordelia recognise each other's worth. But in this production the Fool was just light relief - jumping on and off tables and getting cheap laughs and strumming a ukulele. It was a shame because ALL of his lines are important and none are disposable - despite many of them being cut here.

The Fool's last lines in the play are 'And I'll go to bed at noon' (Act 3, Scene 6) a very ominous confirmation that things are upside down. But in this production, they take some of the Fool's lines from Act 3, Scene 2 and give them to the Fool to say as his last lines four scenes later! One wonders why our greatest playwright needs editorializing.

This production fell into the common trap of presenting Lear's knight's as riotous and unruly. In the text, they are always polite and well mannered. It is a plan hatched by Goneril and Regan that they will claim the knight's are unruly to decrease Lear's train. Few directors notice this. In making Lear's knights actually riotous, they give the lie to Goneril and Regan's claims and present their case as altogether more reasonable. What is often missed also is that they are not even banishing Lear from their house - it is from Gloucester's castle, which they have taken over.

Let me inject some hope here... David Troughton (Patrick-Dr.Who-Troughton's son) does a fine job as Gloucester. He portrays well a good man who simply does not recognize the evil around him until it is too late. Troughton's performance showed the journey of his character and he illustrated his terrible realisations. The humanity of his part was captivating. I wished he had played Lear - I am sure he could have brought much more to the role. Indeed, I hope that one day soon he is given the opportunity.

Kelly Williams played a convincing Regan (the cruellest of the daughters) but failed at times to be quietly chilling (where I think the text demands it).

Antony Byrne gave a solid performance as Kent, and may even have looked better in a stronger cast.

As for the rest of the cast, they all looked as if they were 'acting.' Paapa Essiedu's Edmund was passable but full of self regard - look at me ma, I'm commanding the stage.' Cordelia (Natalie Simpson) sounded like a precocious schoolgirl and even her moments of reflection concerning her dilema at the start of the play were shouted and 'announced.'

This production has been heralded as Brilliant and nearly every review has given it full marks, five stars, a 'tour de force.'

Shakespeare's King Lear can be a life-changing experience. When played even half-convincingly, the words have the power to strike home. For me, this fell very short of the mark. Too much of the text slipped away from the actors whose demeanour did not echo the words they were saying.

I can find no adverse reviews, and I am aware that my views are counter to nearly everyone else who has seen this production. Nevertheless I believe this production was seriously lacking.

I am sure that when the DVD comes out it will be adored and canonised, but for me, it fell far short of what it could have delivered. Theatre could be so much better.

I hope David Troughton is one day invited to take Lear's throne. That's a ticket I'd buy. 'Tis a consumation devoutly to be wished.