Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Review King Lear

King Lear
by William Shakespeare

The Generation Gap
https://www.rsc.org.uk/barbican

Your Mum's dead. Your difficult, out-of-touch Dad offers to transfer all his property into your name, relieving you and your loved ones of all financial problems - as long as you keep him in the manner to which he has become accustomed.

How many in Shakespeare's world could identify with these material concerns is a moot point, although even the poorest elderly peasant who nevertheless had a roof over his head could fear the younger generation ousting him (or her). But Gregory Doran's handsome production of King Lear launches us into a world where an autocratic leader has also, unbeknown even to himself, suppressed unruly divisions in his kingdom.

Antony Sher as Lear is borne by underlings on stage in a magnificent gold and glass casket - a  Titoesque dictator in his combining of three kingdoms, grotesquely assuming he is loved, clad in furs like some pagan Santa Claus.

His demand that his three daughters, including the soon-to-be given-away in marriage and truthful Cordelia (Natalie Simpson), tell him how great he is has the complacency of a Victorian actor-manager hearing the rehearsed plaudits of his favoured actresses. 

There's a minimal feel to the staging designed by Niki Turner  - tightly packed red brickwork and later an illuminated blank white screen with shadow projections as backdrops, single gilded tree branches, giant bronze discs, great swathes of undulating polythene sheets on the floor and falling from above.

Lear's two eldest daughters, Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Regan (Kelly Williams) in gorgeous gold brocade on dark luscious velvet robes of another era take part in the ceremony of Lear's vainglorious and unforced, wilful splitting of his kingdom.  Indeed when Lear's company of knights later riot and assault serving maids, there seems to be some justification for Goneril's complaints, especially when Lear's bear hug turns into an exercise in power and blight.

There's certainly a clarity and emphasis to the verse speaking and those Shakespearean words come back to bite over the centuries with the twenty first century's own take on value and finance.

Regan's words, "Sir, I am made of that self mettle as my sister,/And prize me at her worth. In my true heart,/I find she names my very deed of love—/Only she comes too short".Then  the later lament of the Duke of Gloucester (David Troughton), "the bond crack'd/'twixt son and father.", the forthright speech of the Duke of Kent (Antony Byrne) "I can keep honest counsel ... and the best of me is diligence." The Fool (Graham Turner) "No, faith, lords and great men will not let me; if I had a monopoly out, they would have part on't..."

At the same time, Cordelia is "unfriended" and the vagrants, the crowd of shadowy figures who lurk and criss cross throughout the play, band together to shake literally the ground beneath Lear and those who stay loyal to him. And two football players have a fidelity to the text but almost immediately place Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) as part of the younger, so far carefree, generation.

Indeed the content of this Lear seems to stretch, especially visually, across from the nineteenth century through that of twentieth century Samuel Beckett to our age. Lear himself transforms into male Ophelia in white asylum longjohns and a garland on his head  - a delicate echo of the Pre-Raphelites which avoids parody. His slow, measured tones, with curses acompanied by melodramatic drum rolls, which gradually break down, have undoubted power, although their pace could do with a tad more variation.

The painterly visual and the verbally poignant come together most effectively in the quieter scene where blinded Gloucester and denuded Lear at their nadir sit together on the ground and the full import of their fates come home.

Meanwhile there is a lucid charismatic performance from smooth-cheeked Paapa Essiedu as Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund,  innocent looking and wide-eyed enough to be a plausible deceiver and inviting lover for the Lear's truly thankless daughters.

Oliver Johnstone's Edgar convincingly manages the transformation from gullible half-brother through experience to feeling statesman. Graham Turner's Fool is literally a strutting avian white cock beneath his coxcomb, albeit with the ability to play a music hall ukelele.   

Overall, the storytelling is also lucid, but it sometimes feels as if the characters, although acting on each other, are themselves separated in glass caskets. The natural ebb, flow and waves of this towering play are sometimes a little frozen. However it is an amber/green light for a tragedy otherwise well-served by every level of the cast with plenty of wry humour emerging alongside the calamity and horror.

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