Theater Review: King Lear, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

As the Royal Shakespeare Company continues its traversal of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s time to present one of the biggest ones, King Lear. Opening last night in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where it resides for a very short run (only six weeks) before heading off to London, this Lear features Antony Sher as the King. After triumphing as Falstaff in Henry IV part 1 and Henry IV part 2, then playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Sher returns in the role of the aging king slowly losing his mind, and suffering from a choice he made that he eventually regrets.

Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play. It is the play with the widest range of emotions, with love and loss, treachery, revenge, and so much more. In its three hours, Lear is a map to the human mind. In addition to the main plot of Lear disowning his favorite daughter Cordelia as he plans to abdicate, there is the secondary plot of Edmund, the “whoreson” (bastard) of the Duke of Gloucester, who tries to take control of everything. And the ending is tragic, with Lear realizing all that he did wrong.

I first saw the play in preview a week ago, and again last night at the press night performance. I wanted to like this production a lot; I wanted to love it. I very much like Anthony Sher, and felt his portrayals of Falstaff in the Henrys and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman were excellent; indeed, it’s been a banner period here in Stratford with Sher on stage the past two years.

I wanted to like this production a lot, and I left feeling that it just doesn’t have the intangible magic it needs to be great. I had hoped that my initial thoughts about the production during the preview would be erased by the opening night performance, but, alas, I was disappointed. This is still a very good King Lear, and the audience was wildly appreciative, but I left feeling unsatisfied.

The play starts with Lear being carried out on a very high palanquin with a sort of glass cube surrounding him. When the palanquin is placed on the stage, the cube is lowered, and Lear sits atop his mobile throne. He looks very regal, almost exaggeratedly so, with his overly thick fur coat and a big Russian fur hat (he wears two such fur coats during the first half of the play, his body seeming to be dwarfed by these vestments). The actors on the stage come out all in dark costumes, two carrying tall sticks with large discs at their tops (the sun and moon), and others holding up bits of dead trees. It all looked a bit like an experimental production from the 1960s. (Perhaps it was a reference to Peter Brook, whose 1962 production of Lear at the RSC also feature a Lear with a fur coat and hat. You can see some photos of that production here.)

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(Photos by Ellie Kurttz for the RSC)

The sets changed throughout the play, more so than usual at the RSC, and there was a lack of continuity in the visual elements of the production. In the beginning, the stage was empty, though covered for the most part by a sort of tarp that was later used in a strange way during the storm scene. Lear and the Fool were on a platform that raised up from the stage, with the tarp hanging down below and behind them, to signify… something. I felt the storm scene was overdone; with the bright, flashing lightning and the loud thunder, it was hard to pay attention to the words being spoken.

After the intermission – after nearly two hours; perhaps the play could have been cut more evenly – the stage stands empty again, with just a chair inside a glass cube near the front. This is where Gloucester has his eyes gouged out, in a violent scene with squirting blood and squirming spectators. The glass cube seemed to have no logic except for the fact that it allowed Cornwall to smear blood on it; otherwise, it looked like the sort of prison cell you see Bond villains locked up in.

The most striking set was the Beckettian wasteland where Gloucester and Tom O’Bedlam wandered, replete with a dead tree upstage right that would be perfect in Waiting for Godot. With the stark black stage contrasting with white walls, this minimalist set worked well in those scenes, allowing the imagination to fill in the details of the bleak setting.

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The acting overall was excellent, and the secondary actors made this a very strong ensemble performance. The highlight was Paapa Essiedu playing Edmund, the conniving schemer who would set in motion the plan that led to the tragic end. Essiedu has this year’s Hamlet at the RSC, and he was as brilliant as Edmund as he was as the Dane. It’s worth noting that Essiedu got noticed when he was an understudy for Edmund in a National Theatre production and the actor playing the role was taken ill. His reprising the role at the RSC seems fitting. Edmund has a number of short monologues, and each time, Essiedu crafted his words with guile and humor, and had the audience laughing at his evil intent.

Anthony Byrne was a wonderful Kent, boisterous, and, with his booming voice, commanding a strong presence on stage. Oliver Johnstone as Edgar (and Tom O’Bedlam) had the right balance of madness and confidence, and his scenes with David Troughton’s brilliantly pathetic Gloucester were memorable. Natalie Simpson as Cordelia was very good, but her little voice was often hard to hear, notably when talking with Kent. I noticed this in the preview, and it was only marginally better in the press night performance. The stage is deep, and if the actors aren’t facing the audience – and they don’t always do so – it’s easy for their voices to be too drowned by the open space. There were a few points where some of the quieter actors weren’t quite loud enough; and I imagine the people in the back rows might have found the voices even softer.

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Antony Sher was indeed excellent throughout most of the performance. His Lear as king is convincing, and his descent into madness, following the storm scene, believable. But he lacked the pathos of Lear; he was acting the king’s madness, but it felt just a bit shy of convincing. In the final scene, where Lear holds the dead Cordelia, Sher was wheeled out on a cart, perhaps because Sher couldn’t carry her; the stage directions are “Re-enter KING LEAR, with CORDELIA dead in his arms.” It all looked too staged, and when Sher said “Howl, howl, howl,” he was not howling, but saying the words. In that final scene, everything looked staged. Sher’s “Never, never, never, never, never!” almost made up for the howls, but I felt there was a missed opportunity to move the audience.

I wanted to really like this production, and have tickets to see it two more times before it closes. I may return one or both sets of the tickets; this isn’t a sub-standard production of King Lear, but it doesn’t have the magic that would make it great. I had been looking forward to it, and am a bit disappointed, but perhaps my standards are a bit high, living a few miles from the RSC, and seeing their productions all year round. And especially wishing I had seen Ian McKellan’s 2007 version at the RSC (which is fortunately available in a filmed version (, Amazon UK)). If you’re not a Shakespeare buff, you’ll probably love this production; in spite of its flaws, it gets almost everything right. But sometimes very good isn’t enough; sometimes you want great, and it doesn’t quite reach greatness.