While Emma Rice moves to reclaim Imogen from Cymbeline at the Globe Theatre, at Stratford Upon Avon David Troughton, Pappa Essiedu and Oliver Johnstone make a powerful case for renaming King Lear. The House Of Gloucester seems more apt for this RSC production, directed by Gregory Doran, which gets all of its emotional heft from the three Gloucester characters, the Earl and his sons, Edmund and Edgar. Essiedu is faultless as the scheming bastard, and Johnstone and Troughton are heart-breaking as the central victims of Essiedu’s machinations. Mind you, if you have ever wondered what a Dalek would sound like as King Lear – here’s your chance.
Shakespeare’s masterpiece, King Lear, provides a marvellous opportunity for a skilled actor, a gifted master of technique with a sensational vocal agility, to create a shattering performance that will be remembered for decades. An actor of real talent can define their career with a stellar turn in this play, as scope is offered for the highest, tension-filled drama, the most intimate reverie, the acidic quip, and the most bellicose grandstanding. The writing is a gift for a brilliant, inventive and powerful actor.
Anthony Sher as Lear you ask? Fair assumption. But…
Usually, attention in King Lear is focussed on the actor playing the title role. But in Gregory Doran’s revival, now playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and then transferring to the Barbican Theatre, the focus is on Pappa Essiedu’s sublime Edmund. It’s a performance for the history books. And it is augmented and supported by outstanding turns from David Troughton as his deceived father and Oliver Johnstone as his betrayed brother.
Doran’s production is as beautiful and lucid as one has come to expect from him. He has a rare ability to ensure that even the most difficult passages in Shakespeare are totally comprehensible, that motivations and narrative points are clear. This King Lear is no exception: it is very easy to follow.
The set design is very high art, Niki Turner providing solemn and ceremonial vistas that could be exhibitions in their own right. The post-storm white setting, with a single leafless tree on show, is especially effective. The With-It Designers Handbook 2017 must make mandatory the use of a Perspex box (they seem ubiquitous at present); while its employment here certainly ups the “yuk” stakes when Gloucester Snr is blinded, it does seem a grafted on trick rather than a device which organically unfolds the text.
But there is no denying that Turner provides striking and memorable spaces in which the action can unfold and, as lit by Tim Mitchell, every scene has its own intensity, its own shade of darkness or light. As is usual with Doran productions of Shakespeare, Turner’s costumes are richly formal, straddling ancient and modern in style. There is a hint of pagan tribal ritual about the costumes which underscores the themes of nature and nurture that course through the play.
Ilona Sekacz provides original music that is both haunting and exquisite, urgent when required, plaintiff when required. Jonathan Ruddick’s sound design is exceptional; despite much noise, clarity of diction is not sacrificed. The key scene in the storm, when Lear and the Fool face the elements together during one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, is wild and thrillingly evocative.
The design elements of Doran’s King Lear, especially the recurring motif that sees Lear carried onto stage in a variation of a gestatorial chair, provide a sumptuous and well thought through support for the actor playing Lear. Unfortunately, Antony Sher does not take the support offered. His Lear is dull, a flatline of complacency, a disconnected, thoroughly unaffecting performance that is as bewildering as it is tiresomely self-indulgent.
Sher says the words, cleanly and clearly, but there is no beauty of tone, no startling insight, no disintegration into madness, no heartfelt dislocation or shattering grief. The sound Sher makes when he cradles the dead Cordelia in his arms is more bovine flatulence than either rage or torment; the monotone bleat is not human – it is the kind of sound a Dalek might make as it heads to oblivion. But it fits with the rest of the curious, staccato delivery. Sher never seems connected with the text in any way.
Usually, such a central turn would be fatal for a production of King Lear, especially when each of Goneril (Nia Gwynne), Regan (Kelly Williams), and Cornwall (James Clyde) are pointless one-dimensional smears of superiority. It is true that Cordelia (Natalie Simpson) and Albany (Clarence Smith) are the best of the inner family circle Lear turns topsy-turvy, but not by much.
Partly this absence of strength and verve is down to Sher’s resolute failure to give anything to his fellow actors to work with – his performance is self-centred but lacking any interior understanding – but mostly these members of the cast are simply not equal to the task. Perhaps that will change over time.
Antony Byrne makes a pungent and compelling Earl of Kent. Every sinew of his frame works to the end of making the role vividly believable. This is a stoic and committed Kent, one whose belief in the kingdom is paramount. It’s a muscular and well seasoned performance: a triumph of masculine fealty and honour.
There is good, but inconsistent work from Graham Turner’s Fool, more glum than fun, more wise than ribald. However, there is never any real sense of attachment created between Lear and The Fool, again because of Sher’s shortcomings.
Marcus Griffiths and Theo Ogundipe do sound work as Cordelia’s French suitors and their reaction to Lear’s initial decrees are more telling than the decrees themselves.
However, the production is redeemed, as far as possible anyway, by the triumphant turns from the three Gloucesters.
David Troughton is quite superb as the Earl and his choice to imbue the old soldier with Polonious-like benign gullibility is brilliant. The Earl is warm, charming and easily betrayed. Grace and dignity flows in every vein of Troughton’s Earl.
At the start of the play, he is jocular and hearty; over the course of the narrative, as he loses both of his sons because of Edmund’s duplicity, he wanes, fear and disbelief crowding his senses. The occasion of his blinding is traumatic and hideous, utterly real, and it is impossible not to grieve for Troughton’s Earl.
Later, as he wanders, sightless, bloody and broken, Troughton’s portrait of pain and suicidal resolution is profoundly affecting. He makes the scene where he encounters Lear a miracle of subtlety and his reunion with Johnstone’s impeccable Edgar is impossibly touching, the personification of healed grief.
Troughton finds time, too, for comedy – his leap into the unknown (he thinks he stands on the edge of a precipice) is sweet, incisively human. It’s a fine and quite engrossing performance.
There is not a single moment when Troughton is on stage, especially after the Earl is blinded, that one does not wish – devoutly and absolutely – that he was playing Lear in this production.
Johnstone, too, is exceptional. His Edgar is sensititive and sensible; his Poor Tom a triumph of feral uncertainty, blind faith and, eventually, filial devotion. His scenes with his abused and tragic father are the most complex, the most touching and the most affecting of the evening.
Johnstone has a natural affinity with the language of Shakespeare and he manages to be both poetical and meaningful throughout his speeches. Everyone wants Edgar to be their dutiful son – even when he is scurrying around the forest in Poor Tom mode. His performance calls not for pity, as so many Edgars do, but for understanding, and it is all the better for that.
For all that Troughton and Johnstone excel in their roles, they are both overshadowed by Essiedu who excels in every aspect of his portrayal. His performance is one of the greatest, most vivid, and sublimely intriguing Shakespearean turns of this century. It is rare to see audiences rapt in silent respectful attention at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, leaning forward to ensure no syllable is missed, no nuance unseen, no moment unsavoured – but that was the spellbinding rapture that greeted Essedu’s remarkable turn.
He is an actor who is unafraid of being alone on stage, unafraid of the demands of a soliloquy and thirsty for the engagement of an audience. He measures every word, every phrase, and delivers the text as if it were freshly, inspirationally, suddenly and – most importantly – truly rendered.
There is a Symphonic majesty to every line Essiedu utters. He unleashes the musicality of the verse, finds every jagged barb and every insinuating comic aspect. He makes Edmund sexy, smart and mercurial. He is wonderful to watch.
His performance, along with Troughton’s and Johnstone’s, makes this a King Lear to remember. It is impossible not to wonder what these three great Shakespearean actors will do next.
This production puts a marker in the ground. It is time for the board of the RSC to act. The Artistic Director of the RSC (Doran) should be forbidden to cast and direct his life partner (Sher) in major roles in the Shakespeare repertoire. Sher is doing no good for the company. His Falstaff was unfunny and boring; his Willy Loman fatuous and cold; his Lear astoundingly banal.
Other elder actors – like Troughton – should have their moment in the sun. The eclipse that is Sher needs to pass.
While Essiedu and Johnstone promise much, the RSC needs to be always about excellence in Shakespeare performance, not about Sher’s ego or notches on the wall.
In Act Five, Scene Three, Lear has a line:
This is a dull sight. Are you not Kent?
In this production, that line could easily read:
This is a dull sight. Are you not Sher?
Gregory Doran and the RSC – make it stop. Sher needs to work elsewhere. For Shakespeare’s sake.