What: King Lear by William Shakespeare
Who: Royal Shakespeare Company
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK
In the recent Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) presentation of Hamlet, a classroom scene is created at the beginning at which the title of the play is spoken to announce young Hamlet’s graduation and then the scene is cleared and the play proper begins. I think it was meant to be clever but really it served no purpose. At the beginning of this performance of Lear a group of maybe 10 actors take the stage shrouded in something like lepers’ attire or flimsy beggar garb as shelter against the cold night. When the actors enter for the first scene proper they leave hastily too – shooed away. But this time the importance of this scene is not lost on the rest of the production. Rather, it adds. And like most everything here, it is solid and meaningful.
The beggars give root to Edgar’s decision to become Tom-a-bedlam. If Tom is the only vagrant, mad, beggar than he is an oddity. If the community of the time has many of these living in poverty, if not in insanity, then the notion and his acceptance is better grounded.
Another notion which is unusual but works is the decision to visibly expand Lear’s entourage. Now we are used to the notion of him having 100 followers in the text but we don’t usually see them on the stage. Here, whilst they don’t quite give him a visible 100, all the actors who are available from other productions at the RSC or who are able to complement their smaller roles in this play with a part as an extra here are drafted in and to good effect. They behave in a ribald and coarse way with the serving girls and give the Fool an audience to bounce his humour off to good effect. It also means that when Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, strip him of his company, we, the audience, feel it a little more.
It also means that when the Earl of Kent becomes Caius and assaults Oswald for being impertinent to the King, he has others on stage to give him impetus and momentum.
So for the first time in the last few productions at the RSC, we have supplementary directorial decisions which work well. In addition to this Gregory Doran being not only the director of this particular production but overall head of the company, has the best of the actors in the current ensemble to cherry-pick and he does this with great skill.
As one would expect, Anthony Sher gives us a powerful Lear, Paapa Essiedu is a good Edmund (although it must be noted that what is good about his performance here is remarkably similar to what he brought to his recent Hamlet), Kelly Williams is dispassionate as Regan, Oliver Johnstone who has often been given prominent roles in RSC productions is better here (as Edgar) than in anything else I have seen him in.
David Troughton is persuaded to return to to the RSC to take up the role of the Earl of Gloucester and is perhaps the best thing about this production – Sher might be the “star” but Troughton outshines him.
Graham Turner as the Fool is suitably bawdy and wise by turns, Nia Gwynne as Goneril shrieks a little too much for my taste whilst Natalie Simpson as Cordelia still needs to grow into her role.
Byron Mondahl (as Oswald) and Anthony Byrne (as Kent) deliver their roles in ways that are not dissimilar to what we have seen from them in other RSC productions – a similar criticism could be levelled at Clarence Smith but these are not necessarily failings. This is a large company of significant talents and not everyone can excel.
Ultimately, there is not much I would change here. Oh, yes. One thing. Glass cases. At the beginning as Lear is brought in to divide his kingdom, he is carried in by four men who have him in a glass case on their shoulders. It makes the scene look odd rather than grand.Later, after the interval, the Earl of Gloucester has his eyes removed whilst tied to a chair, encased in a large glass case. It serves only to muffle the voices of the actors and adds nothing to the drama of someone having his eyes ripped out.
Banish glass cases from Lear’s kingdom. All else is well.