Antony Sher played a memorable Fool – a red-nosed music hall clown with battered bowler and miniature violin – to Michael Gambon’s Lear at the RSC in 1982. Now, many leading roles later, he returns to the tragedy as the main guy in a production by Gregory Doran that unfolds with great clarity and confidence and boldness of gesture. This staging wants to impress upon us that we are in a pagan world where feudal obedience and superstitious belief in the influence of the sun and moon have gone unquestioned. Accordingly, Sher’s bushy-bearded Lear makes a show-stopping entrance swathed in thick furs studded with golden discs and borne aloft in a glass cabinet. It’s both intimidating and faintly absurd – Mongol chieftain meets modern art installation.
This is an autocrat who seems to be able to conjure up ominous drum rolls from the air for his denunciation of those who cross his will. Brandishing an upturned palm as though he is a direct channel for the gods’ malignity, Sher lets you feel the full grotesque horror of it when he casts the curse of sterility on Nia Gwynne’s distressed, anxious Goneril. The production sticks up for this daughter. We see the strain on her of accommodating a large retinue of unruly knights who jeeringly barrack her attempts at reasonable complaint. I think that it’s overdoing the rehabilitation to show her handing out bread to a group of beggars at the start. But there’s an extraordinarily painful moment when this Goneril’s sobbing need for paternal affection is brought home: a hug of apparently apologetic recognition that she is “my flesh, my blood” proves to be deceptive and veers into a crazed clinch of disgust that she is, in his warped view, “rather a disease that’s in my flesh”, releasing a further cascade of execration. The production makes a strong case that Lear is a man more sinning than sinned against in the first movement of the play.
Sher is magnificent at the fierce, rebarbative side of this monarch. Reduced to long johns and a white shirt, he also affectingly communicates the man who, liberated by adversity, exposes himself to feel what wretches feel. But there’s a slight inflexibility in his gruff delivery of the verse that prevents it from sounding fully lived in the moment. And the production’s penchant for tableaux don’t promote a sense of emotional spontaneity. For the storm scene, Lear and Graham Turner’s moving Fool seem to be battling against the staging as much as the elements as they are raised on a huge tarpaulin-covered platform. The king does not carry on the corpse of Cordelia (excellent Natalie Simpon). Instead, they are wheeled in on a trolley and the effect, for me, is too much that of a staged pieta, though there’s a piercing touch at the end. Lear expires, head flung back in the joyful belief that she’s breathing and the movement makes her head flop lifelessly onto his breast.
The production is packed with very good performances. Paapa Essiedu oozes sardonic drollery as the bastard Edmund. David Troughton beautifully traces Gloucester’s journey from credulous blusterer to the broken-but-wiser figure who’s comforted in his blindness by a mad king. At the moment, though, it’s an evening that moves and impresses but falls short of leaving you, as it should, shattered to the core.
To 15 October; then at the Barbican (020 7638 8891) 10 November to 23 December. In cinemas from 12 October
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