When it comes to long-haul productions of Shakespeare, spare a thought for the poor actor saddled with the main part. All the introspection and isolation of Hamlet for three months is said to bring on genuine depression, whilst screwing up your body to do the characteristic hunch and limp of Richard III night after night is notorious for actually crippling the lead player. But King Lear is most infamous for equal amounts of backstage/onstage suffering: the actor is required to scale a mountain of grief each night, only to come down the other side and repeat the whole process again the next day, for month after dismal month. It is a feat that is emotionally punishing and many formidable actors playing him have described feeling disheartened and empty.
Lear’s latest victim is well aware of the challenges – Antony Sher is an old hand at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), recently performing there first as Falstaff, then as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, to universal acclaim. But his debut there in 1982 was as the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear. Sher has said that he saw Gambon gradually crumple as the production progressed, crushed by the sheer weight of Lear’s emotional baggage. But despite the promise of much turbulence, Sher and Director (plus long-term partner) Gregory Doran have created a superb production, one that highlights man’s infinite and varied capacity for cruelty, regardless of the age you live in or the morals you adhere to.
The world of the play is a traditional, formalised, ordered one that shatters into sharp little pieces, beginning with a Bronze age warrior-king carried high on a throne, invoking the Sun God in curses thick with ancient ritual and court ceremony. But this is soon dragged literally kicking and screaming into a desolate wasteland of despair uncomfortably similar to the world we now live in. Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out in a lighted Perspex box, making the scene less the punishment of a Jacobean aristocrat, and more a display of modern torture and recalling scenes of violence by Francis Bacon (who painted many of his more gruesome spectacles in white boxes) and Sarah Kane.
This modernisation is deliberate, as Sher and Doran have a history of using Shakespeare to make comments on current affairs. When hearing that a representative of, then Apartheid, South Africa’s government was coming to see him play Shylock, Sher grabbed a black cast member, pointed at the man in the audience, and accusingly shouted his lines ‘You have among you many a purchased slave / Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, / You use in abject and in slavish parts’, causing said man to shrivel into his seat. But in this production, we all stand accused – shuffling, dishevelled figures who could have come straight from Calais’ ‘Jungle’ hauntingly walk the stage as Lear stares at us, saying: ‘Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are…/How shall you hide your houseless heads and unfed sides…/ From seasons such as these?’. It certainly caused a few guilty intakes of breath in the seats next to me. Sher was once again pointing an accusing finger at a viewer complicit in human suffering, and reminding us that cruelty isn’t straightforward, not just a thing that we can consign to a distant eye-gouging past, as opposed to the ‘tolerant’ present, and only caused by ‘baddies’ who are cruel just because they want to be. It’s far greyer than that.
For this reason, Nia Gwynne’s Goneril is brilliant. Far from the usual ‘ugly sister’ routine, Gwynne presents Goneril as a loving daughter; yet the crueller aspects of her father – inviting a loud posse of knights into her home, whose boozy onstage revelry would make any hostess feel they’d outstayed their welcome, as well as Lear enfolding her in a loving embrace that turns into a strangle – eventually drive her to angrily wash her hands of him. As for Lear himself, Sher does well not to present him as a victim, rather an ordinary flawed man: he has the capacity for violence and is neglectful, stubborn and proud. But even so, he wins our sympathy. Sher has always attempted to highlight the contradictions of the characters he plays. His Lear is a proud alpha-male unable to show his real feelings, whilst at the same time increasingly needing the love and comfort of his daughters as he slides into the strange unknown weakness of old age. These contradictions make him disintegrate as beautifully as the world around him, causing bouts of rage (hence the hug that turns into a strangle), fainting fits and a senile madness that fixates obsessively on his daughters’ betrayal. Thus he goes from proud warrior, who strides the narrow stage like a colossus, to a pitiful figure crawling around in his underwear, in the space of one and a half hours.
The play is an eclectic study of violence and cruelty, yet the biggest source of this is surprisingly absent; war against the invading French is constantly referenced in the script, and there is many an offstage battle, but this rich avenue of investigation is left unexplored. In a production prepared to do a non-scripted enactment of the manhunt for Edgar, the absence of the horrors of war is a surprising omission. War raises the stakes, and creates a world where violence is a routine part of everyday life. This certainly would have made it more understandable why Regan and Cornwall – in anger and fear for their lives – feel motivated to blind Gloucester for his betrayal. Without this factor, the two characters risk sliding into the ‘baddies’ formula, which Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund plunges into headfirst. It’s a shame that such an otherwise beautifully thought-through play should fall short here. Moreover almost every one of Edmund’s lines tries to force humour out of a humourless part. Although this may be an attempt to show how some can be psychotic enough to betray their relatives without qualm or care, it seems out of place, unrealistic when held up against the nuanced characterisations of Gwynne and Sher, coming across as a Director seeking variety for a bored audience and an actor playing for laughs. In King Lear, Edmund is not the Fool.
This one hiccup aside, Doran’s production is an utter tour de force. Runs at the RSC and the Barbican are currently sold out, but if you manage to get your hands on one of those coveted golden tickets, hang on tight to it. But prepare for a bumpy ride. Far from Sher exiting emotionally drained, it will be those on the other side of the footlights.