We have finally managed to get to see Greg Doran’s eagerly awaited production of King Lear starring Antony Sher. Sher is splendid at the beginning and the ending of the play. The middle I was less convinced by. Sher characterises Lear physically by slightly hunched shoulders, a slightly forward bent posture and by bear-like heaviness, matched by his animal fur costume. Vocally, though, there is a good deal of monotone. It is not entirely Sher’s fault that I could not warm to him mad on the heath. He is elevated on an unnecessary metal structure and surrounded by an unnecessary huge tarpaulin (which muffed its lines badly on the night we went necessitating a pause in the production while the tarpaulin was removed). The best of Sher was when he was relieved of this clutter. By the end we are able to understand his Lear. Lear ‘slenderly knows himself’. He reacts with gusto to the moment but he doesn’t link those moments together and so he is perceived by others as inconsistent while he is simply responding to whatever moment presents itself to him without joining them together and without thinking in a systematic way.
The best moment in the production is when Lear and the blind Gloucester are sitting talking on an otherwise bare stage. That brings me to the real star of this production: David Troughton as Gloucester. Every phase in Gloucester’s rich characterisation is portrayed with wonderful clarity, both physical and vocal. I didn’t watch the blinding, of course, which took place in another structure – a Perspex box – but I did listen. Troughton’s Gloucester is an efficient court servant, a deluded credulous father, a self-sacrificing prisoner, a dignified victim of torture, a blind creature of insight and a despairing tragic figure. The fall from the ‘cliff’ was breathtaking in its simplicity. It is a wonderful performance.
There are other excellent performances, too. Oliver Johnstone was equally powerful and effective as Edgar. Natalie Simpson was strong, practical and dignified as Cordelia, as clear and unfussy as you could ask for. Both James Clyde as Cornwall and Clarence Smith as Albany make the most of their thankless roles and Antony Byrne’s Kent is as powerful in disguise as he was before his disgrace. I have thought long and hard about Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund because I have to admit that while I was sitting in the theatre I could not grasp why he did so little. But then it dawned on me. Edmund is completely devoid of affect. He is a heartless, conscienceless, evil bastard who smiles and smiles and is a villain. Clever, I now think, and interesting because it makes Goneril and Regan even more stupid for being in love with him. And even cleverer when you realise that he just acts in and on the moment as Lear does.
As for design, I thought the high chair on which Lear appeared in Act I effective. I thought Act I, as well as being brilliantly cut, looked stunning in black and gold while Cordelia was in white and Lear draped in furs. The hand held barren trees and what became two planets were thematically effective. The dim lighting and the preponderance of shadows are completely in keeping with the play’s mood, and the tableau of Lear with the dead Cordelia echoing Michelangelo’s Pieta, created another layer of depth and meaning.
This is a production well worth seeing. It has all the hallmarks of Doran’s contrast between movement and stillness, his lovely stage pictures, his brilliant cutting, his control of pace, his eschewing of stagey ‘acting’, his creation of intense and understated emotional moments.
Come and see it and make it an enhanced treat with a night at Moss Cottage.