David Farr’s production of King Lear at the RSC is a masterpiece of theatrical fluency. Deftly coordinating the traverse from sanity to madness, the descent from king to vagrant, Lear’s interior journey from moral authority to an isolated landscape where he struggles for any kind of communion, this production embraces a wealth of theatrical possibility.
Jon Bausor’s stark yet complex staging reflects and illuminates the clashing of cultures and interests in the play, with costumes from different periods, including medieval furred gowns, a crown of celandines, WW1 uniforms and a disturbingly random blue hospital gown. The uniting feature of the costumes is their dark simplicity, suggesting that whatever the trappings of period, the motivations of the characters persist.
The set itself is quasi-industrial with disintegrating masonry and broken windows. A powerful steel doorway is lowered from above for the threshold of Regan’s dominion. Chandeliers and strip lights fizz on and off to illuminate the chaos at the heart of the divided kingdom. The conflicting references of these metamorphic anachronisms offer a persuasive route into the play’s tragic exploration of disintegration and mental fracture. The heath scene is particularly breathtaking, with Lear standing elevated in the storm as his sad-eyed fool gazes at him from the side - as eloquent a commentary on his condition as any of her lines.
This impressive physical staging serves to emphasise the disintegration of Lear’s authority. Having carved up his kingdom for vanity, he is no longer in command of a united self and is thus exposed to the fragmenting effects of his daughters’ ruthless will-to-power which ranges from mercenary malice to stomach-churning savagery.
A dauntless performance from Greg Hicks as King Lear provides the centrepiece of the play. Hicks has a magnificent voice, richly modulated and full of resonance. He has a compelling way of emphasising particular words, pausing momentarily, so that their meaning reverberates and gains power, before he continues the sentence. It is a technique he uses to devastating effect.
But Hicks’ performance does not stand alone in majesty. Kathryn Hunter, an adept of the Theatre de Complicite, plays the Fool with a wise simplicity. She brings to the role a tender carefulness for Lear which keeps him stable in our affections through all his disintegrations. That the Fool draws near and comforts the broken king on the heath persuades us to Lear’s enduring humanity. Hunter’s Fool is a beguiling combination of realistic and stylised acting, bringing together a gentle wit, a childlike directness and a moving philosophical contemplation of Lear’s condition.
Charles Aitken is gentle and gullible as Edgar, but gives a truly outstanding performance as Poor Tom, bringing to the role all its Biblical resonances. His ribbed hollowing out of the role is emotionally complex and remarkably sustained. By contrast Tunji Kasim lacks the cunning duplicity necessary for his role as Edmund and also fails to completely convince us that he has the virile authority to persuade Goneril and Regan to jeopardise their marriages for him.
Kelly Hunter gives an impressive rendition of Goneril. Haughty and manipulative she has an austere presence that radiates strength and cunning. Regan, played by Katy Stephens is similarly compelling. Together they create a tyranny of fear and random violence which culminates in the blinding of Gloucester. Stephens’ sadistic greed in goading Cornwall to blind Gloucester is performed with suitably psychotic pleasure.
The production is gripping, inventive and assured. It negotiates its dark and complex themes elegantly and its clear-sighted fidelity to a text obsessed with blindness and shady stratagems offers us fresh insights into the play.
- Claire Steele