King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, Live from Stratford-Upon- Avon
The realm is in great confusion. The nation is divided, rulers abdicate their responsibilities, and doom-laden prophecies are whispered everywhere…
Not, as you might be tempted to think, modern Brexit Britain, but the Albion of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In his pre-broadcast chat, this production’s director Gregory Doran (who’s also of course the RSC’s Artistic Director) said that rehearsals had begun in the week of the referendum, and it’s hard not to find modern parallels in the story of Lear.
We first glimpse Antony Sher’s Lear as he’s carried aloft, screened from unworthy eyes, like a kind of Medieval eastern potentate. The court he’s carried into had definite hints of Byzantium for me. Sher’s performance is masterful – well, he’s Antony Sher, you wouldn’t really expect any less, would you? His Lear is both loathsome and pitiable, beginning as a commanding figure, bulked up by a huge fur coat, and gradually dwindling as the play progresses.
This play is the ultimate portrayal of familial dysfunction, and there are plenty of clues as to how his daughters ended up the way they did – having dealt with a man by turns autocratic and emotionally needy, the real miracle is that Cordelia didn’t go the same way. Nia Gwynne’s magnificently scornful Goneril has clearly developed a hard skin to deal with her father’s constant resentment that she’s not the male heir he hoped for, whilst Kelly Williams’ simpering Regan has had to develop an act to survive.
Although Lear has his name in the title, he and his family don’t hog all the action. In the first half especially, some of the best lines go to Paapa Essidedu’s Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester. This is another dysfunctional relationship – Edmund’s resentment at the contrast between his father’s treatment of him and his legitimate half-brother Edgar drives him to try to destroy both. Essiedu, recently a brilliant Hamlet (see here), is a fiery and charismatic Edmund. His excellent performance is matched by that of Oliver Johnstone as Edgar, who grows from a Tim-nice-but-dim figure at the start, to nobility by the end.
Edgar is one of the few survivors at the end of this most unremittingly bleak tragedy, which has a tendency to reduce its audience to emotional wrecks. I had already started welling up at Sher’s Lear grieving over the body of Cordelia, but what tipped me over the edge were Antony Byrne’s last lines as the Earl of Kent, promising to follow after his dead master.
The old leave the stage, leaving the surviving but leaderless young to try to pick up the pieces. Brexit Britain again?