The last time the RSC produced King Lear at the Courtyard Theatre, it was one of the most high-profile theatrical events of the decade. Directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Ian McKellen, it was the climax of the Complete Works Festival as well as going on to generate an international tour, a West End run, national television broadcast and extensive DVD sales. The ongoing afterlife of this production meant that this new production on the same stage felt like a rather sudden return to the play for the company, demanding it particularly work to distinguish itself from its immediate predecessor.
The unique advantage available to Associate Director David Farr, returning to the Courtyard after last year’s successful Winter’s Tale, was working once again with the RSC’s current three-year ensemble company, now halfway through its time performing together. This allowed Farr to explore the merits of directing Lear with a relatively democratic company, as opposed to one led by a single star actor. In the opening scene, Greg Hicks’ Lear demonstrated this attitude admirably: his king took a position of central dominance for the division of the kingdom, but afterwards faded into the background as Cordelia’s suitors bartered over her, yielding the focus of attention to his disowned daughter.
Hicks’ unshowy Lear was a minor revelation, taking a fresh approach to the King’s decline. From the start, his authority and command were uncertain. A grand procession announced his arrival, with courtiers bowing to the stage’s rear entrance in expectance. After a long, embarrassing pause, a loud laugh came from the back of the auditorium, and Lear ambled in from the audience, forcing the courtiers to quickly rearrange themselves. This playful king ruled not with supernatural command or martial power, but with a combination of avuncular humour, petulant anger and impulsive unpredictability: his sudden grasp of a sword to strike down Darrell D’Silva’s Kent in the first scene, for example, was created with horror by a court who, as a man, rushed to stop him. Moments like this insinuated a court dynamic of tolerance and sycophantic respect for a weak king: humoured as long as his orders were reasonable, but coddled and restrained when his orders were not approved. This extended into his relationship with his daughters, over whom he exerted a similar blend of bullying, emotional blackmail and genuine affection. A lover of performances, as evidenced by his noisily-sweeping ceremonial cloak and insistence on the daughters standing on boxes in order to address him, he frequently descended into scathing sarcasm and enactment of both his and his daughters’ fantasies: most effectively, miming the mannerisms and voice of a doddering old man as he accused both Goneril and Regan of seeing him thus.
This, then, wasn’t the epochal fall of a great man, but the personal, internal collapse of a sane man. Lear’s self-aggrandising nature, his bullying and emotional swings, were all imagined as characteristics of a mind on the brink of collapse, pushed over by the eventual refusal of his daughters to play along to his own conceptions of reality anymore. Cordelia’s refusal to bolster his ego, followed by Goneril and Regan’s refusal to accommodate the trappings of his kingship, dealt him a dual blow that shattered his imagined persona and left him vulnerable. Consequently, his scenes of madness were the most affecting and poignant of the production. Appearing in Act 4 naked from the waist up, with a headdress of great leaves and plants stuffed down his trousers and socks, he cut a pitiful figure but also a free one. As he held the sobbing Gloucester, confessing that he knew his old earl, we finally saw the genuine affection that the old Lear, obsessed with maintaining his sense of power, had never allowed himself to show.
Alongside Lear’s mental collapse came the physical collapse of the stage (a popular RSC staging device in recent years). This timeless world had a delapidated basement feel to it, with peeling walls gradually crumbling away and flickering neon overhead lights fading and creaking from their hangings. Light entered the stage from a set of windows far above, but otherwise this was mostly a dim and claustrophobic England. Pre-Christian armour and cloaks mingled with WW2 uniforms and medical equipment in a deliberate merging of England’s pasts: this was not about an historical time of struggle, but a universal moment of mental collapse and its significance toe the world around that person.
The daughters of this production were largely very impressive. Kelly Hunter played an older Goneril with a great deal of dignity. It was implied, through the vehemence of Lear’s curses and her reaction to them, that she and husband Albany (a solid John Mackay) were trying – and had failed – to produce an heir, and her sobbing reaction to Lear’s repeated wishes for her sterility seemed genuine. These curses were later revisited by Lear upon himself, as he massaged his own genitalia while complaining of “hell”,”darkness”, and the “sulphorous pit.” Katy Stephens’ red-dressed Regan was more confident and forward, even descending from her crate in order to emphasise her affections for her father in the opening scene. While flirtatious, this Regan was not as sexually aggressive as is sometimes played: her winning smiles were always matched with hard eyes, and she preferred to maintain her independent authority from arm’s length rather than throw herself into mens’ arms. The motivation of both was a typical combination of pressure forced on them by their father and self-interested ambition, and the descent of the pair to open murder (Goneril’s “I’ll ne’er trust medicine” was openly screamed at Regan, who realised instantly what had been done to her as she knelt on the floor gagging) was neatly realised. Unfortunately, this entire subplot was let down by Tunji Kasim’s shallow and uninteresting Edmund. While Edmund performed the basic functions required of him, the glue that ties together the conspiracy, betrayal and infighting of the sisters’ story was entirely lacking, leaving Hunter and Stephens struggling to tie their performances into the whole.
Samantha Young grew into the part of Cordelia after a feeble opening, in which her asides to the audience following her sisters’ declarations of love (often cut, with good reason) were delivered in a spotlight from the centre of the stage, a device entirely foreign to the spirit of the rest of the production. Dressed in green robes and armour as she led the forces of France into Britain, however, she provided a commanding and strong presence. As she kneeled before Lear’s wheelchair and met him at ground level, the significance of this reunification and forgiveness after what appeared to have been a lifetime of unbalanced relationships was strongly reinforced. The moment also provided a neat connection for viewers of Farr’s Winter’s Tale, where Hicks and Young were similarly reunited as Leontes and Perdita. The casting connections also held true for Hicks and Hunter, where his cursing of Goneril held strong echoes of his similar treatment of her earlier Hermione; while the dance of Kathryn Hunter’s Fool around D’Silva’s Kent nodded to the pair’s upcoming collaboration as Cleopatra and Antony.
The Fool, a young boy played by a middle-aged woman, was particularly interesting in this production. Hunter’s tiny stature allowed her to literally run rings around the other performers on stage, keeping up an energy that allowed her scenes to feel both fresh and funny. A face of genuine fear at the mention of Lear’s whip told us that this Fool was tormented by Lear at least as brutally as his daughters were, but the Fool’s purpose in speaking the truths no-one else can was thus even more important than ever. Sad and wistful, Hunter sat with Hicks, kicking her legs and gazing at him in distress as he fought with his daughters, and that gaze told us all we needed to know about Lear’s prior decline from a state of greatness. After fleeing Gloucester’s castle, the two sat together again, and the image of the tiny Fool sitting next to the tall Lear, with a briefcase in front of them, struck this reviewer as being reminiscent of the set-up of a ventriloquist act: whether intentional or not, the image was more than appropriate for a scene in which the Fool and the King effectively complete each other’s thoughts.
The storm scene gave Hunter a chance to showcase a small element of the physical work for which she is renowned, breaking through the back wall and swinging out into the main auditorium as thunder crashed and lightning illuminated the entire stage. Hicks, stood on a raised platform centre-stage, was caught in a narrow deluge of pouring water. The image was striking, and served to reinforce the importance of the storm as internal as much as external. His appearance in this state was contrasted nicely by Charles Aitkin’s excellent Edgar/Poor Tom who, with his dishevelled hair, beard and loincloth, visually evoked the suffering Christ. Self-flagellating and rambling in a near-liturgical manner, Edgar’s performance as Tom invoked the sense of self-punishment that the production then allowed us to read into Lear as well.
Other strong performances can only be quickly mentioned: Geoffrey Freshwater gave a tender performance as Gloucester, beurocratic and desk-bound in earlier scenes but dignified and painfully desperate after his gruesome blinding, for which Cornwall (Clarence Smith, reprising a role he played for Headlong Theatre only last year) used a red-hot poker. James Tucker was officious and extremely amusing as Oswald, while Darrell D’Silva gave a bluff and leering performance as a down-and-dirty Kent, although the attempt to revive interest in the character’s fate by having him pull out a knife before his final exit felt rather peripheral: the production hadn’t invested enough in Kent to allow this to feel important. Similarly, Albany’s response to Edmund’s death (“That’s but a trifle here”) was greeted with laughter, despite the character’s body remaining on stage to physically counterbalance the positioning of Regan and Cordelia’s bodies: the laughter of the audience bespoke a lack of interest in a plotline that felt like a distraction from the main plot. There were other disappointments: the appearance of Edgar for the final duel with two six foot broadswords promised a spectacular finale, which instead fizzled out in a single clash of blades and a swipe across Edmund’s stomach.
This, then, was a production of sundry good parts that didn’t quite add up to a satisfying whole. Hicks’s dying moments, gasping out his final words as he fell backwards with Cordelia in his lap, came as a fitting climax to a touching and powerful reading of the main plot, but this clear and defined focus on Lear’s own collapse wasn’t wide enough to govern the myriad subplots and additional characters. While finding an identity distinct to itself, and featuring strong performances and visual displays, the universality of the aesthetic translated to a lack of dramatic unity for the play as a whole, and the audience was instead left to content itself with the details.
This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.