David Farr can’t seem to make up his mind in which period his King Lear is set – within a few scenes we shift from a mediaeval hall to the First World War with Jon Bausor's set looking like it could be recycled for Journey's End. To give the play a modern touch, the action is played under strip lighting that crackles and fizzes throughout the play.
The mixed-up chronology does suit a kingdom in chaos, this after all is a world where pagan gods mingle with Christianity. and where rulers of a fractured kingdom are at each other’s throats.
The strength of the production is in the strong contrast between Regan and Goneril and their respective husbands: a civilian-clad Albany and a martial Cornwell. It serves to accentuate Lear’s folly: here’s a king who is blind to the divisions in his own family, one that will mirror the divisions in his kingdom.
Greg Hicks’ Lear starts off as a joker, cajoling Cordelia in a stage whisper to be more effusive in her praise. It’s commonplace to draw comparisons between the Fool and Lear but it’s rare to see king so set on playing the joker from the start.
This capriciousness makes Lear’s descent into madness less obvious and Hicks retains some of the streak of jocularity even in the darkest moments. I was reminded many times of a delivery of a northern comedian, there was the relish in the absurdity of existence, coupled with the love of whispered asides. His delivery of the verse is excellent but I find that his rather mannered enunciation rather old-fashioned.
There’s an exceptionally strong Goneril from Kelly Hunter and a fine Regan from Katy Stephens. There’s no love lost between them from the start but I like the contrast between Goneril’s unhappy marriage to Albany and Regan’s strong bond with Clarence Smith’s sinister Cornwell.
Kathryn Hunter’s resignation from the RSC means that the Fool is now played by Sophie Russell and she brings a tender pathos to the role, showing real affection for Lear. Charles Aitken’s Edgar is a strong presence too – his Christ-like beggar a figure of dignity in the raging storm.
But it’s hard to understand how Goneril or Regan could fall so hopelessly in love with Tunji Kasim's uncharismatic Edmund, nor why he could fool Geoffrey Freshwater’s bluff and decent Gloucester.
Farr’s staging has plenty to commend it but perhaps there’s a little too much emphasis on the confusion in the text – the production rather distracts us from some fine performances.