They say that King Lear is the pinnacle to which Shakespearean actors aspire. They start off their careers as a young Romeo, progress through Hamlet, into battle with Prince Hal, mature into A Midsummer Night’s Dream and eventually face Lear.
Antony Sher isn’t a stranger to the role but it is probably the first time he has been raised up on high, his fool strapped to his ankle, to perform a raging storm scene. It is almost Biblical. With grey hair and shaggy beard, and dressed in a long grey tunic, he looked more like Moses atop Mount Sinai, shaking his fists at the heavens.
Director Gregory Doran has taken Lear back to the dark ages, almost literally, for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s engrossing and emotinal production which opened last night in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Set in a pre-Christian era, the audience’s first glimpse of the king is as him dressed as a divine god on earth, resplendent in an eye-catching, full-length fur adorned with golden icons, and sitting atop a throne with his minions at his feet.
The remaining cast are dressed in black, some with ornate gold scrolling, with traitorous Goneril (Nia Gwynne) in blood red and doomed daughter, Cordelia (Natalie Simpson) standing alone in virginal white.
It is a visually spectacular sight, packed with symbolism, and one that is repeated throughout. For most of this triumphant and stylish production the vast stage at the RST is bare and bathed in a Stygian darkness, but there are moments of sheer theatrical splendour from designer Niki Turner.
The storm scene is the big money shot. As thunder and lightening rages above a vast oilcloth is drawn upwards to cloak a rising platform that holds the demented king and his fool (Graham Turner).
In another, which doesn’t work at all, the Earl of Gloucester (David Troughton bringing all his experience to the play’s secondary lead role) is put in a glass cube (which plays havoc with the sound) to have his eyes plucked out.
I have to report, as one always must when reviewing a Lear, that they are successfully and brutally squished by James Clyde’s Duke of Cornwall, making a satisfying popping sound as they go and spurting blood all over the front of the cube.
It makes cleaning up easier but looks like the prop has been borrowed from Phillip Schofield’s game show, The Cube (and even comes with ye olde worlde fluorescent tube lighting).
Yet there is also an elegance in simplicity with Gloucester’s outlawed son, Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) sitting on a stage that is empty except for a withered tree in the background.
Lear, a story, less we forget, is about families, of two ageing fathers struggling to come to terms with the actions and behaviour of their children.
But there’s a strong political message from its director about what can happen post-Brexit. Will it come to this?
Sher is outstanding as the tragic king – right from his impressive entrance, full of pomp and ceremony, he puffed up, arrogant and invincible, to his sad demise, heartbroken and wretched.
The king’s slow descent into madness is subtly played and full of pathos. In his moments of clarity he tries to grasp hold of what is happening around him but eventually it is all too much.
Sher is a shining star in the world of Shakespeare. His delivery trips along the iambic pentameter with each word beautifully spoken and given centre stage in this most bleakest of tales.
The old warhorse, Gloucester, has an equally powerful subplot that mirrors his master’s. Troughton, recently starring in Goodnight Mister Tom, has brought some of the old boy’s irascibility with him.
The earl, the king’s faithful ally, is betrayed by his bastard son, Edmund, who connives to split the lord from his legitimate son, Edgar.
Troughton’s nobleman is full of despair, pain and anguish. There’s an unforgettable moment when the two fallen men, king and his dutiful servant comfort each other. It is masterful in its simpleness and potency.
Earlier this season Paapa Essiedu thrilled RSC audiences with his portrayal of Hamlet. Here he is equally enthralling as the fiendish, manipulative and cunning Edmund, plotting his own ambitious rise while casting out both his father and brother.
Elsewhere there is strong support from Antony Byrne, as the Earl of Kent, and Clarence Smith as Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany.
Perhaps it was my hearing but I struggled to understand some of the daughters’ speeches, their small voices were occasionally lost in the emptiness of the stage, while the male cast, even the minor roles, were clear and powerfully spoken.
But overall this is an impressive and striking production with a heart-rending and noble central performance from Sher.
King Lear plays at the RST until October 15 before transferring to London’s Barbican, running November 10-December 23. The production is also broadcast live to cinemas around the world on October 12.
Antony Sher triumphs with a magnificent return to the role of tragic King Lear. An outstanding and stylish production.