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A teaching to make even adult men howl … the latest version of the RSC is a thoughtful and layered production, says QUENTIN LETTS

A teaching to make even adult men howl … the latest version of the RSC is a thoughtful and layered production, says QUENTIN LETTS

  • “This is a thorough, competent, thoughtful, layered Lear,” Letts writes
  • Sir Antony Sher gives an outstanding performance in the lead role as Lear
  • Stratford’s production is full of grandeur, intrigue and excitement

Sir Antony Sher provides remarkable services to the Royal Shakespeare Company. In three years he has done Falstaff in the Henry IVs, Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman and now we have his Lear, directed by his husband Greg Doran, head of the RSC.

Where would Stratford be without them? Mind you, is it wise for one of the state’s major art organizations to be so dependent on one couple?

Sher’s Lear enters intriguingly: carried up in a glass box, like a kind of filled exhibition. He has a high eyebrow, a beard, Fidel Castro in his dress or perhaps a Mongol chief in this thick fur coat. It must be warm to wear.

The spectacle helps one to ignore as much as possible the opening flaw in Shakespeare’s tragedy – the improbability of a father acting like that. What man, especially a widower with three daughters, has not learned to react more equally to a teenage girl’s foal?

Antony Sher as Lear in his lavish fur coat in the exceptional performance of the classic King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theater

Antony Sher as Lear in his lavish fur coat in the exceptional performance of the classic King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theater

Mr. Doran repeatedly delivers striking tableaux. For the storm scene, Lear and his Fool are lifted by a tarpaulin-covered platform to such a great height that they almost have to spy on Moses on Mount Sinai. Great thunderstorm, by the way.

And Graham Turner’s pale Fool, Geordie vow and with a little belly, is poignantly done.

The battlefield is conducted behind an opaque screen, illuminated so that we only see frozen silhouettes of the soldiers. Not that we’re deprived of the clash of metal blades: the sword fight between Edmund and Edgar is quite aggressive.

The play’s infamous eye-gouging moment takes place in another glass box, this time lit by incandescent bulbs, blood spurting against the windows. When this happened, one of my brother critics in the neighborhood let out a little wail.

The staging can therefore be considered a success, even if the line went, ‘Out, vile jelly!’, Lost amid Gloucester’s wicked growl and the audience’s gasping horror.

This is a thorough, competent, thoughtful, multi-level learner. It doesn’t take sides. The king’s biting, brutal soldiers deserve to be kicked out by Goneril (Nia Gwynne).

Kelly Williams’ Regan might cackle during eye gouging, but the older sisters aren’t being caricatured as oversexed vipers, as can happen. The presence of Antony Byrne as the Earl of Kent and David Troughton as Gloucester provide essential ballast for mid-order batting.

The direction emphasizes the generation eclipse as the old king is supplanted by time and his descendants.

Two spheres represent the sun and moon, complete with a shadow, and black and white themed Mr Doran toys, both in the costumes and lighting.

The players give a thunderous performance in Stratford's adaptation of the classic game

The players give a thunderous performance in Stratford's adaptation of the classic game

The players give a thunderous performance in Stratford’s adaptation of the classic game

I wondered if there was any of this in the casting too. Both Cordelia (Natalie Simpson) and Edmund (the exciting Paapa Essiedu, who must keep the jokes in check by ten percent) are played by black actors, while their stage parents are white.

But all things thematic fade out as the plot takes hold. Sir Antony’s performance has the grandeur you’d expect from a 67-year-old theatrical knight. Unfortunately, he doesn’t carry Cordelia’s corpse at the end, but you do feel most of the steps of his old king’s battle on ‘the rack of this rugged world’.

If it’s not big enough, it could be because of the Sher’s voice, insistent but little varying in tone or tempo. You could never call his delivery rich or fruity.

When raised to a scream, Dalek gives him a rattle. Who moves? Call Burgundy! could almost be, “Exterminate, exterminate!”

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