Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
10th September, 2016, matinee
‘Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,/ That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/ How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/ Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you/ From seasons such as these?’ (3.4.29-33).
This is one of my all-time favourite Shakespearean passages. I like it for its poetic beauty, for its compounding of the many themes of the play, as well as the astute social commentary it induces, both then and now. Inspired by this, Gregory Doran’s production of King Lear begins by preluding the action with ragged, poverty stricken ‘wretches’ cowering upon the stage; hooded, veiled, anonymous. In contrast, the proceeding scene is rich in texture, as the bejewelled aristocracy meet under Lear’s desire to explicitly divide his kingdom. Antony Sher’s Lear is heralded by a procession of underlings carrying branches and golden orbs, evocative of natural and universal spirituality, and the apparent absolutism of the monarchy. Dwarfed by gigantic Russian furs, he enters within a transparent palanquin, reminiscent of the pope-mobile, he is separated in stature from his subjects rich and poor; a visual manifestation of his hubristic neglect.
The themes of nature, division and poverty are also tremendously wrought in the storm scene. Doran’s simplistic staging sees Lear and his Fool (Graham Turner) lifted high, upon a gigantic billowing sheet, physically exemplifying Lear’s call to ‘smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!’ and ‘crack nature’s molds’. The unnaturalness of this tragedy is subsequently entwined with the suffering of the poor, creating a heady mixture of nihilism, injustice, and divine abstinence as Lear wanders the moors of his land, in an ironic reformation wrought by simultaneous madness and reason.
Despite Lear’s inherent hubris, Sher is delightfully pragmatic in performance. While his frailty is constantly foregrounded – from his palanquin mode of travel, to his hand tremors, and his final entrance upon a cart, too weak to carry the fallen Cordelia, Sher exhibits all the tremulous rage of an elderly, cantankerous man, convincing of a once all-powerful ruler, now belittled by the constraints of old-age. Yet, for me, he really excels in moments of quiet incredulity. During a confrontation with Goneril (Nia Gwynne), Sher’s eyes are lucid and piercing, his hushed words resound as he fixes his daughter with an almightily withering glare.
While King Lear may seem to be a star-vehicle for the Shakespearean greats, that is to deny its epic scope and true ensemble nature. I particularly admire Shakespeare’s ability here to render all characters and all plotlines coherent and rounded (an aspect, I feel, which is neglected in some of his other sweeping tragedies). As such, amongst a strong ensemble, David Troughton’s Gloucester is masterful as an initially powerful statesman before toppling into sympathetic despair. His scenes with the unbeknownst to him Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) are particularly touching. Paapa Essiedu wrings Edmund for all his sarcastic wit, eliciting the majority of the humour in this production. His is an interesting take on the character, making the bastard seem deceptively benign as we are impelled to empathise with his eye-rolling frustrations concerning the ‘natural order’ and his old man’s superstitions. On a semi-off topic note, Bryon Mondahl’s Oswald reminded me, not unkindly, of Conleth Hill’s Varys from the Game of Thrones series – a minor observation, but one that tickled me.
In a production of admirable performances and classical thematic focus, Doran smartly eschews concept-driven direction, preferring to foreground the text (tonally and visually it reminds me of his successful 2013 production of Richard II). The only deviant is the neon-lit Perspex chamber within which Gloucester receives his torture. While a fun idea (if ‘fun’ can be used to describe such a harrowing moment in British drama), it remains rather tame and is not as blood-splattered as it could be if intending to shock. Moreover, stylistically this scene jars with the remainder of the production aesthetic of ostensibly pagan natural divinity. Thus it is a memorable moment, but not as a piquant example of Doran’s overall vision; it appears more as an anomaly in the otherwise pretty traditional theatrical style associated with his direction.
There are moments in this production that will linger in my mind – the effective staging of the storm, Sher’s performance of intense human frailty, and the sheer scope and spectacle of seeing a large cast populate the RST stage in an accessible, un-divisive telling of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. And if Doran is a little safe as a director, I cannot complain too much as he delivers everything a wide-ranging audience would wish of a visit to the RST.
King Lear plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 15th October before transferring to the Barbican where it plays from 10th November – 23rd December 2016.