Review: RSC live King Lear

Review: RSC live King Lear – 14th October 2016

Guest post by Emer Murphy

As the centenary year marking William Shakespeare’s death nears its close, audiences around the world continue to delight in the wonders of his work. Despite the evolution of both time, and culture, his plots and characters demonstrate true resilience as they poignantly reflect the most basic of human instincts and injustices. But while the twenty first century moves into unchartered territory, there remains an almost striking familiarity. With millions of people displaced as a result of violent conflict and western politics catapulted into a state of chaos, history appears to be repeating. It is against such a backdrop that the RSC production of King Lear, directed by Gregory Doran, becomes all the more resonant for its audience, as the story of the great King’s fall offers lessons to even the most sophisticated of cultures.

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Lear and his daughters  (Image credit: RSC website)

With the stage awash with golds and browns, Lear’s downfall is instantly foreshadowed by the overt use of autumnal colours as he makes his magnificent entrance, wrapped in huge furs and hoisted aloof. He is instantly set apart from everyone else, elevated to a god-like position and encased in a glass box to highlight his utter detachment from his subjects (much like the political elite of today). Anthony Sher’s Lear speaks with controlled authority, almost complacency, as it becomes clear that he is significantly removed from reality. He has become too comfortable atop his throne, something Sher captures so perfectly with his body language, sinking into it with such effortless ease as it appears to be an extension of his being. Lear clearly occupies a realm of his own and is seemingly untouchable, until the moment he makes his most fatal mistake – the banishment of his beloved Cordelia – the catalyst for his fall.

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Sher as Lear  (Image credit: RSC website)

As Lear succumbs to his baser instincts, letting jealousy and egotism rule him, winter colours of grey and black come to prominence on stage and the set becomes more barren and bare. The leaves have withered and gone, just as Lear’s reign has rotted from its roots, leaving him to the mercy of those he scorned. While Sher’s performance displays an understanding of the wayward king, it lacks a little chaos and, to echo Susannah Clapp, it remains contained. He never loses control. He never truly gives into the flames of passion, despair and madness, and because of that the performance lacks a certain spark. Even at his lowest points – his isolation in the forest, his suffering through the storm, and the death of Cordelia – he remains somewhat detached from his emotions, bottling up his inner turmoil instead of releasing it. In short, the explosion never came. But for all that Sher was not, he nonetheless remains an intriguing Lear, spitting venom at his daughters, sitting in despairing silence with his Fool and muttering lovingly to Cordelia’s limp corpse. He captures the quiet, contemplative Lear with the ease of a skilled and experienced actor, and instils in the audience powerful human emotions that can only be triggered by the demise of a great character.

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Edgar as Poor Tom  (Image credit: RSC website)

The stand-out performance, however, goes to Paapa Essiedu for his stunning portrayal of the calculating Edmund. Essiedu brings a refreshing burst of villainy to the role with his mocking irony and humorous disdain, transforming Edmund instead into a most likeable villain. His tantrum-like foot stamping and immature jealousy make him a character the audience can relate to as he manipulates his way into his father’s favour. Strangely, but most satisfyingly, it is he who prompts the most laughter. Likewise, Oliver Johnstone excels as Edgar/Poor Tom. His agile, nimble movements allow him to move energetically around the stage in the image of a wild animal as Edgar slowly transitions to Poor Tom. His startled facial expressions and fleeting looks capture the peril of his situation as he appears more mad than Lear ever does. Covered in a layer of dirt and dust, wearing only a filth-stained loincloth, Poor Tom makes Lear, in his white undergarments, appear as though he is merely on a hike through the wilderness.

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Lear and Goneril  (Image credit: RSC website)

In a similar vein, Goneril’s progression from decent daughter to murderous villain is fluid and measured. She the product of Lear’s contempt, moulded from his cruel, hateful words as she refuses to be governed by his dictations. She does little to warrant or provoke such anger in her father and yet he rejects her so thoroughly, cursing her with infidelity in a scene that would make even the harshest of critics flinch. Her distress is palpable and resounds throughout the theatre as Lear’s treatment of her forces her to become cold and unforgiving in nature. Regan’s progression, by comparison, is not near as convincing. In the most vicious and violent of all Shakespearean scenes, Cornwall and Regan tear out Gloucester’s eyes, but here their actions seem too rushed and instead take from the horror of the scene. Regan maintains her distance from the action and is more of a spectator than an active participant in the violence. The glass box in which Gloucester is bound has echoes of Lear’s opening entrance, but this time the sentiment was very different. It comes to symbolise the utter destruction of his reign as, ultimately, it comes to be stained and spattered in the blood of his closest acquaintance.

Overall, the production captivates from the moment of Lear’s entrance to the moment he breathes his last, but somehow it fails to fully ignite.

Guest post by Emer Murphy. Emer has recently completed her studies on the MA Texts and Contexts: Medieval to Renaissance at University College Cork.

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