Antony Sher takes on one of Shakespeare's greatest parts in this transfer from the RSC
As Glenda Jackson whips up a storm across town at the Old Vic, the RSC transfers its latest take on Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ from Stratford to its London home at the Barbican.
But what we get from RSC artistic director Gregory Doran’s production is too often mild turbulence, not full-blown maelstrom. Diverse casting adds subtle textures to the disastrous family relationships propelling the story, but with its just-modern-enough, brick-walled set, flowing tunics and hair, this staging feels overly familiar.
To be sure, it’s full of nice touches. Doran’s keen ear for the rhythms and ironies of Shakespeare’s verse translates into some nicely sardonic humour. And Nia Gwynne is affecting as a Goneril who, here, is far more traumatised, abused daughter than cackling villain.
As Lear, the king who swallows the myth of his own invincibility and tears his country apart by turning love into a test of loyalty, Antony Sher is fine. Arriving in a glass cabinet like something ornate left on a shelf, his declamatory style evokes monstrous ego. He’s a trussed-up warlord, issuing curses in a strangulated rasp.
But there’s a constraint to Sher’s performance, a lack of edge, that blunts the teeth of what is arguably Shakespeare’s bleakest play. There are moments, towards the end: his reunion with a blinded Gloucester (David Troughton) is moving, while small flashes of fear are effective cracks in Lear’s brittle facade.
But Lear’s raging in the storm is more noise than pain, more immaculate delivery than emotion. And the production repeatedly pulls away from its wilder side. In this regard, Paapa Essiedu’s embittered, sarcastic Edmund stands out. His audience-facing, slack-faced sneer has a whiplash effect on proceedings.
There’s much to enjoy about this production. But when the resonance of a play about a divided country full of characters blind to each other vibrates with enough force to shatter glass, this staging plays it safe. It never really breaks out of the case that its Lear arrives in. It never gets your pulse racing like you want it to.