For the first time, we overcame scepticism and joined a packed house at FACT, our local Picturehouse to watch the RSC production of King Lear streamed live from Stratford. It was a revelation; we were completely blown away by the experience, which was not at all like watching TV but instead felt totally immersive, like being there in the audience and on stage at the same time. I particularly appreciated being able to hear every word spoken and see details of costumes and facial expressions of the actors.

All of which is merely a preamble to praise for the production itself: Anthony Sher was outstanding as Lear, while the entire cast burned just as bright. Directed by Gregory Doran, the staging and costumes were magnificent, making this a truly memorable production of the Shakespeare play I have seen more times than any other.

From the very first moments, as Sher makes a dramatic and imposing entrance through a vast doorway, carried aloft on the shoulders of burly servants on a gold-encrusted palanquin preceded by bowing and scraping courtiers, you realise this will be a great and enthralling production.

Goneril (Nia Gwynne), Natalie Simpson (Cordelia) and Kelly Williams (Regan) stand before Antony Sher as King Lear makes his dramatic entrance
Goneril (Nia Gwynne), Natalie Simpson (Cordelia) and Kelly Williams (Regan) stand before King Lear (Anthony Sher) as he makes his dramatic entrance

This is due not least to the work of designer Niki Turner who, in every little detail, has evoked a pagan world in which rulers draw down their powers from the celestial forces of the sun, moon and gods. In his anger, Lear will invoke these divine powers to inflict malignant, vengeful wrath upon his daughters and his kingdom.

Niki Turner’s design is one of the most striking I have seen in a Shakespeare production. Hoisted aloft inside a glass chamber, Lear’s power and presence are magnified by the furs in which he is swathed, the gold medallions that adorn him, and the great gleaming disc which glows like the sun behind him. The costumes seem to evoke an indeterminate Celtic or central Asian past; only black and white are used, with gold clasps and trimmings used to reinforce the sense of majesty at the court. During the interval we were shown around the RSC’s costume workshops in Stratford (a mini-industry in their own right) and saw how fragile was the astonishing robe adorned with gold worn by Nia Gwynne as Goneril in the opening scene). Significantly, the only exception to this rule at the outset was Cordelia, dressed in pure white. It was notable how more white was introduced later on: Fool’s outfit, then Edgar when he flees disguised as Tom, and finally Lear himself, wandering unaccommodated and remorseful through the storm.

The old man (Ewart James) and Gloucester (David Troughton)
The old man (Ewart James) and Gloucester (David Troughton)

After the interval Turner produced a sharply-contrasted piece of modernistic staging in which stark Godot-like branches raked a bleached sky, emphasising the isolation of Lear and the blinded Gloucester.

Every aspect of this production reinforced its power, with the acting uniformly as compelling as the staging. This was truly an ensemble piece, with the strength of Sher’s Lear matched by every member of the cast. Antony Byrne as Kent put in a powerful performance as, disguised by shaving off his beard and hair and with his head tattooed, he is transformed into a fierce-looking servant seeking employ in Lear’s retinue.

Antony Byrne as Kent in the stocks
Antony Byrne as Kent in the stocks

Nia Gwynne as Goneril, Kelly Williams as Regan and Natalie Simpson as Cordelia gave outstanding performances as Lear’s three daughters. Graham Turner as Fool; Paapa Essiedu as Edmund, illegitimate son of Gloucester; and Oliver Johnstone as Edgar, the legitimate son of Gloucester also gave sterling performances.

The scale of resources at the RSC’s disposal was highlighted in this production by the costumes and staging – but also by the ability at certain points to fill the stage with a crowd of two dozen or more Stratford locals playing knights, soldiers and vagrants.

Antony Sher as Lear with Graham Turner as Fool
Antony Sher as Lear with Graham Turner as Fool

In another example of jaw-dropping staging, in the final scene, Lear does not enter carrying the body of Cordelia. Instead, they are wheeled in on a tumbril in what can only be described as a staged living pieta. Shaking his daughter’s body as if to shock her back to life, Sher howls ‘Never, never!’ again and again. ‘Look there!’ he cries, expiring as he seems to her life return.

 

Cordelia, Lear and Kent
Cordelia, Lear and Kent

Every new encounter with King Lear reveals fresh aspects of Shakespeare’s exploration of humanity – our strengths and our failings. Interviewed in the live transmission before the performance began, director Gregory Doran spoke of the social and political tensions at the time the play was written – in 1605-6, in the terrified aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot which might easily have resulted in the assassination of the king, along with a substantial part of the aristocratic elite.

Since there is evidence that several members of Shakespeare’s family were recusant Catholics, you might speculate that in lines like –

Get thee glass eyes;
And like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not

– the playwright was leaning towards the view that the Plot had been a conspiracy, not of Catholics, but of those who sought to reinforce the recusancy laws.

Whatever the case may be for perceiving aspects of the text as coded references to Shakespeare’s own time, it was difficult not to see the post-Brexit relevance of this to ours:

‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.

Or this:

Love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. There’s son against father … there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time: machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders …

The mood of this autumn was perhaps the reason why Albany’s closing lines struck such a chord with me:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Still, as Edgar remarks in an earlier scene, ‘Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither.’

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2 thoughts on “Anthony Sher dazzles in the RSC’s King Lear

  1. Isn’t it astonishing how Shakespeare’s words and ideas continue to provide a touchstone for modern times, all these years after his death? It doesn’t seem to matter whether his plots are recycled from other sources, because his insight into the human condition has an accuracy that transcends time, suggesting that underneath the trappings of 21st Century life, people are little changed from their peers in the 16th Century.

    Did you see Robert Stephens in the role shortly before his death? It felt as though his whole soul went into the part leaving him empty and exhausted by the end of the performance.

    1. No I didn’t see the Stephens, though have seen several fine Lears including Peter Postlethwaite at the Liverpool Everyman. Every production, though, has been mentally exhausting – for the theatre-goer and, visibly, for the actors. As someone remarked coming out of this show – Shakespeare based his play on a just-published text which contained none of the angst and anguish he brought to his masterpiece. (In the source, Cordelia and Lear survive to rule jointly.)

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