Review: RSC King Lear

Solemn music. Dim golden light. A crowd of subjects in dark heavy robes waiting with anticipation.

Enters King Lear, carried atop a glass cube, dressed up in a huge coat of fur that seems to swallow him whole; big metal plates decorate his already impressive attire and a heavy crown sits snugly on his head.

Gregory Doran’s King Lear, with Antony Sher in the title role, is a dignified, weighty production in many ways. The costumes are dark, timeless and dazzling (for the nobility), the music is foreboding, lonely and sinister and the characters, no matter how minor, shine fiercely through the confident actors. Everything about this production is sure of itself. And yet, coming out of the theatre, I was ever so slightly disappointed.

Let me start with the good points. Sher’s Lear isn’t what I expected. Immersed in his own luxurious outfit and world of worship, this King Lear really believes he can channel the gods’ magic because of his status – unlike his tired and impatient daughters. Every time Lear invokes the gods, he raises his hand to the sky and speaks the words with a vicious deliberateness, with ominous music buzzing in the background. This habit of his humanises his elder daughters’ exasperation as we know they have humoured their delusional and self-important father for decades.

In fact, the production does a great job at presenting the elder daughters’ characters. Nia Gwynne, in particular, stands out as a nervous, stressed out Goneril. When declaring her false love to Lear, she wrings her hands and stutters, clearly uncomfortable with the charade. Lear’s knights (played by 24 local amateurs) are shown as rude and rowdy, giving Goneril plenty of reasons to want them out. Lear cursing Goneril for being ungrateful is an especially chilling scene. Again with hand towards the heavens, it seems like the king really has borrowed the gods’ power to plant infertility upon his daughter. The knowledge that Lear firmly believes in this power gave me chills.

Apart from the intimidating regal side, Lear’s vulnerability is touching. On the road with his Fool (Graham Turner), he is sometimes mad, sometimes confused, sometimes sad. When he can’t help but laugh at the Fool’s silly jokes, we get to see a doubtful and frightened old man under the fur coat.

The supporting cast are great. Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar is noble, pure, and brave, his innocence and goodwill pitiable. His evil half brother Edmund is played by Paapa Essiedu who has recently shone as RSC’s Hamlet. Edmund is the highlight of the show for me. He is a charismatic figure, and his scheming monologues are deliciously wicked. While I felt everyone else plays their part well, Paapa gives the feeling that he lives and breathes the character. Not one single syllable has the slightest bit of uncertainty. Every word and gesture toys with the audience; he keeps you on the edge of your seat in a 400-year-old play. The famous line “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” is uttered with such delightfully sardonic tone that it wins me completely over.

Even I am surprised that I left this strong production wanting more. It could just be that I’ve never particularly liked King Lear as a play, but I believe the main reason was the pieta scene. Now, traditionally Lear comes out carrying the dead Cordelia (beautifully played by Natalie Simpson here) in his arms, but here Doran has decided to have both Lear and Cordelia slowly wheeled out on a huge wheelbarrow of some kind. Of course, Cordelia is still in her father’s arms, and certainly this gives Lear a further sense of vulnerability, but I felt the theatricality takes me out of the moment a little. Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” is, again, strangely dramatic in a production that has, overall, felt very gritty and immersive. Perhaps I had unrealistic expectations on what this scene should sound like, but hard as I tried, I wasn’t moved by it.

However, as the scene progresses, Lear’s sorrow settles into more genuine gentle madness. Thinking Cordelia might be alive after all, Lear is caught with sudden joy and flings his head back as he dies. As if letting out a long-held breath, we feel relieved that he no longer has to suffer any more pain.

Again, perhaps it was just my expectations. Maybe I read too many reviews before going in. Cordelia’s death, in the text, has always been impactful. I wanted to feel devastated by the live stage performance. Instead, I walked away with a feeling of satisfaction from seeing a production that has ticked all the boxes.

King Lear is certainly a bleak and depressing play, where you feel helpless from watching everything go wrong before you. The nice characters don’t get a nice ending, but nor do the nasty characters. There is no real sense of catharsis or retribution, all you’re left with is the hope that it’s sunny enough outside the theatre to cheer yourself back up.

Fabulous costumes, great music, interesting interpretation and solid acting. Most important of all, 3 hours and 20 minutes of constant reminder that families suck and your brother/sister/wife/daughter/son is probably planning for your downfall right this minute. If you love tragedy, Greg Doran’s King Lear is for you.

Gregory Doran’s King Lear will play in the Barbican Theatre in London from 10 November. 

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