If the Royal Shakespeare Company has one signature strength, it’s presenting plainly-spoken, easily comprehensible productions of the Bard’s works, typically well-cast, well-designed, and well-directed. There are exceptions (how could there not be for a company with such an active repertoire?), but I’m happy to report that their King Lear, currently running at BAM’s Harvey Theater, isn’t one of them.
If there’s a somewhat overly safe quality to this Lear, it’s a tasteful affair, led by veteran Shakespearean Antony Sher (most recently Falstaff in Henry IV in RSC’s production at BAM in 2016) and directed with style and energy by Sher’s husband Gregory Doran, the current artistic director of the company.
Near the top of the play, Sher’s Lear enters in a clear glass cube, hefted forward by attendants, at a remove from the court. It’s a somewhat faux-edgy choice, seemingly borrowed from the toolboxes of hipper, younger directors than Doran, but such a flourish doesn’t ultimately diminish the nuance of Sher’s performance, his throaty, considered growl lending appropriate shimmer to one of Shakespeare’s most achingly affecting plays.
King Lear, written relatively near the end of Shakespeare’s career, examines the descent into madness of its aging titular monarch, and spends much of its duration examining the conflicted hearts of women and men caught between the warring impulses of filial piety and feigned devotion, amongst the king’s daughters and between the legitimate and illegitimate sons of the banished Earl of Gloucester. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” Lear asks of his daughters as he divvies up his land into parcels, seeking a boon to his ego as much as assurance of his daughters’ loyalty.
It’s an almost childlike impulse, this craven desire for intemperate platitudes, one mirrored in our own country’s leadership, and Lear’s outsized reaction to his daughter Cordelia’s earnest, even-tempered expression of love in opposition to her sisters’ pandering spells the beginning of Lear’s hubristic end.
It’s a herculean descent into madness that actors have tackled for centuries as proof of late-career stamina and skill, and Sher charts Lear’s journey with a craftsman’s skill for mining the moment in every scene, emphasizing the subtle downtick of his character’s fortunes, as he turns from one daughter to the next for support and finds himself, instead, facing the elements amidst an epic storm, mercilessly uncovered.
A Lear without a strong supporting cast stands the chance of buckling beneath the weight of its central actor. Fortunately, there are many strong players here – particularly Nia Gwynne’s Goneril, all frown lines and quiet fury, and rising Shakespearean star Paapa Essiedu as Edmund, who brings an arch humor to his character’s conniving machinations. David Troughton lends gravitas and world-weary humility to the role of Gloucester, and Mimi Ndiweni proves to be the sincerest and most affecting Cordelia of the six I’ve seen.
Niki Turner’s sets and costumes shift tonally over the course of the production, from deep red brick and rich furs while Lear reigns and shortly after, to a bleak, bone-white, Beckettian wasteland as his tragic fate nears. Deep earthy tones prevail, and the production’s costumes fit safely into the category of modern fantasy – applying clean modern lines and an almost Wakandan flair to the typical ‘Shakespearean’ dress.
As a result, this Lear feels like somewhat of a hybrid, torn between its traditional impulses and more modern touches. Fortunately Sher and his talented castmates keep the focus squarely on the text through their performances. Their contributions make this an affecting and ultimately rewarding production despite its occasional missteps, well worth its three-plus hour running time for the pleasure of savoring a most excellently-acted, handsome production.
King Lear runs to April 29, 2018. More production info can be found here.