Are the characters in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production of King Lear, opening Thursday night at BAM Harvey Theater, having too much fun? It certainly feels so in places. Lear himself, the great tragic king of drama played by Antony Sher in this production directed by Gregory Doran, is here not the familiar booming then splintered regal foghorn of yore.
In Sher’s conception, Lear is mercurial, sprightly, impish, mischievous—even in the depths of his madness, betrayed and bereft, and zoning in and out of reality, he affects a little jig to dance off the stage.
It is a commanding performance, but it is also one that bucks Shakespeare’s text, and our expectations of it. Some of those great speeches and memorable lines bubble up from Sher’s throat. We catch them, but he deploys them as a fading elderly man rather than with guttural enunciation.
The charismatic Pappa Essiedu plays the villainous Edmond as less reptilian schemer and more bored and vengeful usurper of order. His illegitimacy is only one engine for him to target his father, Gloucester (David Troughton), and good brother Edgar (Oliver Johnstone). The rest of his letter-driven schemes is a chess game against himself to smirk and sneer through. Johnstone himself is marvelous, particularly for the long stretches of the play where he’s clad only in skimpy cloth and covered in muck, ranting away as Poor Tom the beggar.
Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Regan (Kelly Williams) are fabulously venomous, and also furious at their father Lear’s lackadaisical disregard for their futures. Lear condemns them in some of his memorable speeches of the play—and Sher delights in each one—beginning with his initial ringing denunciation of poor Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni), banished after not telling him she loves her father fulsomely enough. She is dressed in white at the beginning, but far from her scheming sisters’ meek and pliant victim.
The scuffed, peeling, ornate interior of the theater provides a natural backdrop for Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. Niki Turner’s set design is a rough floor covering that is a kind of arena for the drama, and later becomes a sodden, outdoor backdrop when the storm comes. Little illuminated rivulets also course down the stage.
There is the odd blasted bush to signify heathland, and a softly lit backdrop that acts as a silhouette for an impressionistic battle scene. Lear is conveyed in at the beginning, wearing the most fabulous, shaggy coat, on top of a glass terrarium as if a regal specimen.
The see-through-box theme returns later as a container for the characters involved in the terrible plucking of Gloucester’s eyes. This time the box just seems a hokey, unnecessary visual trick. If it was to stop the blood from spraying the audience in the front rows, the actors could have just looked off to the side.
At a key moment, when the drama of King Lear is at its most visceral, it separates the audience from its characters, and totally needlessly. It looks like a gimmick, particularly as the show is mostly period and suddenly we are facing the structural basics of a Damien Hirst installation.
Directors’ note: Yerma at the Park Avenue Armory does “good box.” Don’t “box” for the sake of it. The production features color-blind casting, which is excellent, but its three messengers, waiting on others’ orders, are all played by black female actors, which seems at best a lazy oversight.
Certain parts of the text about power and corruption ring so true they merited the audience’s sighs. Indeed, the attention to the text, the actors’ understanding of it, and their vivid animation of the words held us rapt for over three and a quarter hours.
Graham Turner’s Fool and Antony Byrne’s Kent—the former in white with skullcap and pompoms, and the latter with head tattoos—are particularly piercing, trying to help and cajole Lear with riddles that make devastating sense and rough comedy.
Think of Lear near the end, now all in white, a loose strait-jacket, and a regal laurel crown. He has learned that the mad are wise, the wise mad, and that he—enabler, bully, loving, irascible, foolish, vain, lost and now found—is at the nexus of every contradiction about power that the play proposes. What is left for him but to imagine just playing and being with his beloved Cordelia, to show love and be loved, and need not much more?
It’s a simple wish, left tragically undone.
Performances of King Lear continue at BAM until April 28. Book here.