Yesterday was a tiring, but utterly triumphant 13 hour round-trip to the little town of Stratford-upon-Avon to watch what might be the greatest play of all time. Actually, scratch that – THE greatest play of all time. William Shakespeare’s magnum opus, King Lear, this time starring the great theatrical actor Sir Antony Sher at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
For those of you who don’t know, King Lear is the story of a nation divided. It opens with an old king retiring with the intention of dividing Britain between his three daughters, according to which of them love them the most. His favourite, Cordelia, refuses to get embroiled in a war of words with her other sisters – Goneril and Regan, so is disowned. From then on, the entire play show the murky destruction of a land and the attempts of the old King to redeem himself even as he is overtaken by madness.
From an acting point-of-view, King Lear is often seen as the Everest of any career – the inescapable peak that has to be scaled. I’m reminded of the climber George Mallory who, when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, said “because it’s there.” Why does any actor want to play King Lear? Because it’s there. The part requires the actor to juggle multiple strands of character and storyline, while much of his backstory remains submerged in the unwritten past. Antony Sher certainly looks the part, with a wonderful grey beard and amorous wardrobe, but I sometimes felt he was too consistent in the role. He nails the madness and the humanist aspect of his character, and is overall pretty brilliant, though a part of me wanted to see more of the tyrant in Lear, particularly during the first scene and the legendary “Blow winds” speech.
What makes this particular production excel, however, is the strength of the entire cast and the epic scope of Gregory Doran’s staging. Paapa Essiedu, fresh from playing Hamlet for the RSC, is fantastic as the villainous bastard Edmund, while there is a definite roundness to the performances of Antony Byrne, David Troughton and Oliver Johnstone as Kent, Gloucester and Edgar. I also enjoyed Nia Gwynne as Goneril and Graham Turner as the fool. This is a big, complete play, and this version captures so many of the most important elements of the play brilliantly. The final scene, with Lear and Cordelia, is staged with genuine emotion and sadness. I really do highly recommend King Lear.
King Lear is playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 15th October before arriving at the Barbican in London for a month between 10th November and 23rd December.