By William Shakespeare
Directed by Greg Doran
Designed by Niki Turner
Music by Illona Sekacz
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon
Friday 26th August 2016, 7.15 pm
Antony Sher- King Lear
Graham Turner – Fool
Nia Gwynne – Goneril, Lear’s eldest daughter
Kelly Williams – Regan, Lear’s second daughter
Natalie Simpson – Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter
Clarence Smith – Duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband
James Clyde – Duke of Cornwall, Reagan’s husband
Byron Mondahl – Oswald, Goneril’s steward
David Troughton – Earl of Gloucester
Paapa Essiedu – Edmund – illegitimate son of Gloucester
Oliver Johnstone – Edgar – legitimate son of Gloucester
Anthony Byrne – Earl of Kent, later disguised as Caius
Marcus Griffiths – King of France, suitor then married to Cordelia
Theo Ogundipe – Duke of Burgundy, suitor to Cordelia
Kevin N. Golding – Curan, a courtier
Ewart James Walters –Old Man
Romayne Andrews – Soldier
Eke Chukwu – Soldier
James Cooney – Soldier
Bethan Cullinane – Lady
Marieme Diouf – Lady
Jenny Fennessey – Lady
Plus a cast of twenty-four Stratford locals playing knights, soldiers and vagrants
I keep thinking I’ve seen as many productions of King Lear as I want to, as it’s never been a favourite play (I tend to get bored in the blasted heath sections), and I reckon Pete Postlethwaite defined the title role a decade ago. The trouble is, they keep coming up with landmark actors in the title role, so you do want to see it again. In this case, not only Antony Sher as Lear, but Paapa Essediu, fresh from Hamlet as Edmond, David Troughton as Gloucester, and Oliver Johnstone who impressed us so strongly in Cymbeline as Edgar. Lear is a dubious distinction for an actor, as the oldest major Shakespearean role.
Lear & Daughters: Antony Sher rear, Goneril, Cordelia, Regan front. Nia Gwynne, Natalie Simpsom. Kelly Williams,
This is a magnificent visual production. The costumes are from no known era, but are completely coherent. Only black and white are used, with gold trimmings in places, and the startlingly scarlet balls on the Fool’s hat. Lear first appears, sitting atop a massive glass case, clad as some Central Asian ruler, Sohrab and Rustrum era perhaps, in grey furs with massive gold clasps, gold crown on his head. The symbols of his power are great brazen circular discs, and Sher invokes some unknown deities with powerful hand gestures, while speaking on first appearance in a tired, shattered voice … the full power soon appears. Later the armour looks Central Asian or Mongol Horde or Japanese with small leather overlapping panels and black skirts over trousers. At the beginning, Goneril and Reagan have beautiful gold adorned robes, but Cordelia is in pure white. It has massive visual impact. Black brick covers the back walls in the first part, but raises to reveal first one third of its area of shining white in part two, then all white skies backing the whole set for the heathland above Dover with its one twisted bare tree.
There is a metallic cloth sheet covering the black stony stage until the storm, when it’s raised at the back, forming a waving gold expanse from which a tower rises high below the cloth to hold Lear and the Fool in a mighty thunderstorm, as if on some wild peak or precipice. Terrific stuff.
Another visual highlight is putting out Gloucester’s eyes, in part two. He is strapped to a chair inside a glass box (OK, I know it would actually be perspex)… quite a voice projection task for David Troughton there. Of course he manages, but his voice is muffled. When the eyes are put out blood squirts onto the glass side, and Cornwall (James Clyde) smears his bloody hands on the perspex too. Cornwall realizes that he has his wound inside the same box and descends out of sight. That’s a major Windolene task for the stage crew, I thought, especially on matinee days.
Lear (Antony Sher) and Gloucester (David Troughton)
Antony Sher and David Troughton are two of the finest actors on the British stage, and to see them together is a rare delight. You can’t remember a performance exactly from over a decade ago (Postlethwaite), but I have seen Lear several times since, and Sher is undoubtedly the best I’ve seen. I’ve seen David Troughton as Bottom and as Vincentio (how’s that for contrast) and his stage presence is as powerful as any actor today.
Old Man (Ewart James Walters) and Gloucester (David Troughton)
Then you have the young stars in Paapa Essediu and Oliver Johnstone as the Gloucester brothers Edmund and Edgar. Essediu reprises his Romeo rather than his Hamlet, and is a surly truculent Edmund, the illegitimate son. Notably on first appearance, Gloucester introduces him to Kent (it sounds like the Queen’s uncles), and Edmund hasn’t the grace or courtesy to accept the proffered hand. While he does surly youth so very well, and did a stellar turn in the “bastardy” speech, I don’t think he captured the sexual predator aspect with Goneril and Reagan, though he was very funny in timing his late “Which one?” speech. It looked as if Reagan and Goneril were pursuing him and he was just going along, rather than him exploiting them. He also seemed more a nasty psychopath rather than the trickster and plotter. He is always a totally engaging performer, but I’ve seen trickier, more duplicitous and also sexier interpretations of the role.
Edgar as Poor Tom (Oliver Johnstone) with Godotesque tree.
Oliver Johnstone as Iachimo was the outstanding performer in Cymbeline and he moves from baddie (there) to goodie (here). As generations of British actors have found in Hollywood, baddie is often not only the fun role, but the one American filmstars are less keen on. Edgar is a really hard role, moving from open-mouthed dupe to mad, shite and blood besplattered poor Tom, to sympathetic son. A tremendous performance.
Kent (Antony Byrne) in the stocks
Antony Byrne as Kent is the other major role. He starts off with red hair and beard, and once he’s banished, he disguises himself by shaving off his beard and hair, which when you think about is a simple and convincing disguise … and stronger than the reverse (gaining hair) which is a more usual choice. I did wonder, given the presumably short time scale … Lear gave him five days to leave the country when he banished him … how he managed to get his head tatooed in the time, but as it was only one side, we may assume he was booking to have the other side done later. But joking aside, it did make him a fierce looking new servant seeking Lear’s employ. A minor quibble was that he looked SO different than you needed to know the plot.
Cordelia (Natalie Simpson) and The King Of France (Marcus Griffiths)
The three sisters were all strong. Cordelia is necessarily a wet part, but Natalie Simpson played it with natural grace. Nia Gwynne as Goneril and Kelly Williams as Regan were older, harder. Unusually though, I felt totally on Goneril’s side in the knight’s carousing scene. In a move similar to Doran’s Julius Caesar, and this year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, twenty-four locals were recruited to play knights, and vagrants. There were a lot of loutish knights at the long table, and they were coarse and abusive to Goneril, with Lear and The Fool (Graham Turner) egging them on. You could see why she might hold a grudge against her old dad.
All Back to Hers? Dinner at Goneril’s place. Would you want this lot round? Graham Turner on the table as Fool.
My strong sympathy with Goneril was partly her reactive performance, partly having seen a fifteen strong group of pissed blokes swaggering through Stratford earlier in the day, singing and shouting, and they were late thirties or early forties with apparently not a neck between them. They looked just the sort of lads to catcall a duchess, though Goneril is Duchess of Albany not (a / the) Duchess of Cornwall. We thought Stratford an odd place for a stag party, hoped the wedding would not be at our hotel, and hoped even more they weren’t contemplating the RSC for their evening’s entertainment.
On Goneril and Regan, one scene that lacked clarity was the poisoning of Regan. The poison had been applied off stage, we assume, and it was a further point where someone new to the play might fail to grasp the plot. That whole denoument has been done more clearly. The main fault was the armour. When the French appear, in an impressive, threatening line up, they’re all wearing the interleaved leather patches armour, including Cordelia and the King of France (Marcus Griffiths). Then Albany has a gold breastplate, and his supporters have other armour. But then it just seems to get mixed up, making us unsure which side anyone is on. Both Marcus Griffiths and Theo Ogundipe (who played the Duke of Burgundy) have to do lots of bit parts too, and they’re highly distinctive guys. You think, hang on, isn’t that the King of France? Oh, no. Now he’s just a soldier on the other side. Incidentally, Marcus Griffiths completes two years of all those smaller parts at the RSC, and always excels.
Cordelia, Lear and Kent
At this point too, Cordelia is captured and brought on with Lear, having changed from her armour to a pristine white dresss. In spite of her capture and subsequent imprisonment and death, she stays in the symbolic pure white. I would expect, in deference to the fate of women in war, to be at least somewhat dishevelled. They had a good get round from the normal hernia, backache and knee strain inducing final scene of Lear carrying Cordelia on, always a dodgy spot for older actors even with as svelte a Cordelia as Natalie Simpson. They were both pushed forward on a cart, with Lear holding her across his knees.
Lear (Antony Sher) and Fool (Graham Turner)
My negatives are excessive assumed knowledge of the plot at a few crucial points as outlined. The positives are legion. Antony Sher and David Troughton both give a classic, nuanced, powerful and moving rendition of all their lines. Lear’s dementia feels real. I have never seen better in either role. That’s the centre of the production, as it should be with two such fine actors. Graham Turner gives us a Fool that works, and that’s a part where an actor inevitably is fighting against the convoluted text. The scene where The Fool and (mad) Lear sit together, both breaking up over silly jokes is outstanding acting from both, unforced, feeling completely natural. It was echoed in the curtain call where the front row turned stage right,and Antony Sher started to turn stage left, and Antony Byrne signalled him with his head. Both got the giggles. A charming moment. Byron Mondahl brings interest to Oswald, Goneril’s steward, often a dull part, but here a strong one.
Edmund (Paapa Essediu)
I’m not quite so certain about our two young male stars. Oliver Johnstone advances his career in a difficult role as Edgar. Paapa Essediu proves he continues to do what he did so well as Romeo and Hamlet, as an overgrown teenager with a surly attititude and fascinatingly modern inflections and pauses. But he hasn’t added a dimension.
I didn’t notice music much, which is as it should be, though I did notice bass drones on Lear’s initial entry and the early parts.
Costume and a powerfully simple but changing set, including that perspex box are other positives. The all black look worked, but I would have liked a more consistent marking of the armies. I would cut at least ten minutes and shift the interval. As expected, it’s a major version of Lear. In spite of the reservations, you can’t give it less than a five star review, though while A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the RSC this year was a Five plus, this is just a five.
* * * * *
We saw Greg Doran’s Julius Caesar the afternoon it was filmed for live broadcast, at two and a half hours without a break. I know we sit through films that long with no break, but you don’t feel the same pressure that you can’t leave your seat without disturbing the performers, even if you don’t have to. The seats at our local Cineworld are wide, almost aircraft seats with a recline, armrest and lots of legroom too. Those at the RSC are not.
I was taught the same rule in both teacher training and in drama: you need extremely strong justification for exceeding 100 minutes before an interval. Yes, stretch it just a tad if there’s no interval at all, but this ran to just short of two hours in the first part, a touch over an hour in the second. Total was three hours five minutes. To me, that’s simply unbalanced with the interval in the wrong place. It’s not just a question of ageing bladders (though look around at the audience profile), but attention and concentration, especially when the end of the first part is the intrinsically garbled long Poor Tom and Lear scenes. I would have gone out right after the thunderstorm where Lear and The Fool are high above us.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Our two “top critics” Michael Billington & Domenic Cavendish both gave glowing reviews, but four stars. Their reviews were so positive that you wonder what a play has to do to get five.
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph ****
Michael Billington, Guardian ****
Paul Taylor, Independent ****
Michael Davies, What’s On Stage, ****
Sarah Crompton, Sunday Times ***
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard ***
OTHER KING LEAR REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
King Lear – David Haig Bath Theatre Royal
King Lear – Frank Langella Chichester Minerva
King Lear – Russell-Beale National Theatre
King Lear- Barrie Rutter, Northern Broadsides tour, directed by Jonathan Miller, Bath Theatre Royal
LINKS TO THIS BLOG:
A lot of the cast are doing a 2016 RSC season, and have been in both Hamlet and Cymbeline
GREG DORAN on this blog
Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 RSC
Henry V – Alex Hassell, RSC, 2015
Julius Caesar – RSC 2012
Richard II – RSC 2013, David Tennant as Richard II
The Witch of Edmonton by Rowley, Dekker & Ford, RSC
Death of A Salesman, by Arthur Miller, RSC 2015
The Shoemaker’s Holiday, RSC
Hamlet, RSC 2016 Stratford, (Claudius)
Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 RSC
Cymbeline – RSC 2016 (The Duke, Cymbeline’s husband)
Cymbeline – RSC 2016 (Innogen)
Cymbeline – RSC 2016 (Cadwal aka Arviragus)
Cymbeline – RSC 2016