Greg Hicks is at the heart and soul of the current RSC ensemble who are gathered to perform a number of Shakespeare’s classic works at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The ensemble began its work last year and will continue to work together until 2011 – although rumour has it that Hicks will leave early.
This reviewer has had a lot of kind things to say about the current crop of productions. But I have to admit that in those productions in which Mr Hicks has featured largely I have not always seen him as a strength. He was Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” but my review suggested that the strong production’s strength lay elsewhere. He was Julius Caesar in “Julius Caesar” but that production was a little muddled and muddy. He was absent from “As You Like It” which I think is an excellent production and deserves to be revisited when it reopens at The Courtyard in the Summer.
So the combination of Greg Hicks and my favourite of all the Shakespeare plays “King Lear” was a worry to me. I hadn’t been too taken with Corin Redgrave’s Lear in the production of a few years ago – in what was otherwise a strong performance by the cast – and I badly wanted to see a strong lead role in this new production – but I don’t seem to naturally warm to Hicks. Could he deliver?
Well, the good news is that Mr Hicks is a towering presence in the David Farr-directed version of Lear and that there are precious few flaws in this production at all. The King’s descent into insanity and the torture of his experience at the hands of his callous daughters is captured in a believable and emotionally draining rendition of the play. The depiction of the loss of reason is a major success in this version of the play. Whether Edgar’s insanity is real or feigned or a combination of the two will always be matter for some discussion but in this production there is no question that Charles Aitken manages to make it all feel heartfelt and the product of an over-heated brain.
Katy Stephens who was such a major success in the aforementioned “As You Like It” is a beautiful and intriguing Regan. If Regan has a passionate look in her eye, then Kelly Hunter’s Goneril is the ice queen who cares nothing as her Father falls apart and her dispassionate depiction is once more compelling and convincing.
And it is not only in the major roles that there are major triumphs. Larrington Walker who was so good as an old shepherd in Winter’s Tale is a similar joy as an old man and a knight here.
Cross dressing? We’ve seen our fair share of that in The Courtyard over the last few years and not always to the plays’ enhancement. A female playing Lear’s fool is indeed an unusual twist and Kathryn Hunter handles it with aplomb. I note that Ms Hunter is to play Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. Now on the evidence of this performance that is an intriguing and unconventional piece of casting. Whether she can make it two unlikely successes remains to be seen.
There are some flaws. John Mackay as the Duke of Albany, Goneril’s husband is a little insipid and the lack of passion that works well in his wife’s role does not carry well for the Duke.
But there are so many strengths that it is hard to dwell on the weaknesses. I haven’t yet mentioned Samantha Young in the difficult role of Cordelia, or Darrell D’Silva as the Earl of Kent and in his later disguise as Caius, who seems in this production to have come from the Pennine regions and also Geoffrey Freshwater as Gloucester, poorly-used by his son and deluded of so much. The scene where his eyes are put out is very well handled indeed.
Indeed, the direction, stagecraft, and design are largely flawless. There are times when you wonder whether the actors have been let loose in Mum’s dressing up box when costumes that are consistent with a traditional Lear are joined on stage by military wear from the First World War and some outfits that a 1970s Action Man toy might have been at home in but this is a relatively small, if noticeable, peculiarity which unexplained still does not overly detract from the enjoyment and the impressive nature of the whole effect of the production.
If Greg Hicks is a towering Lear he is well served by an equally lofty production which achieves its goal and so much more.