It is over 20 years since Jeremy Irons played an impressive Richard II for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he brings all his old charm and crack-voiced swagger to the role of a modern King Lear in Dennis Kelly’s new play The Gods Weep.
But Kelly’s use of the Shakespearean template isn’t half as imaginative, or successful, as David Greig’s Dunsinane sequel to Macbeth. Still, it’s good to see the RSC stretching its playwrights and wonderful to see an actor like Jonathan Slinger, scintillating as both King Richards in recent years, donning a grey suit as a power-crazy businessman, proving himself a new Ian Holm.
Slinger’s role, like so much else in the first half, evaporates in a welter of stilted battle scenes and loose threads, and you can’t help feeling that the drastic cuts made to the 180-page text during rehearsals are reflected in the hesitancy of the performances and the production by Maria Aberg.
Once again the RSC has reconfigured the Hampstead auditorium, creating a new block of seats around Naomi Dawson’s design of a huge corporate boardroom table (reminiscent of the council table in Peter Hall’s Wars of the Roses) and a looming tree; the table descends like a bed to provide a promontory in battle as the nation falls apart, along with the play.
In the opening scene, Irons’ Savile Row-suited Colm takes over Belize and divides the other accounts on the global map between Slinger’s ferrety Richard and Helen Schlesinger’s ball-breaking Catherine.
These two then fight to the death – a David Hare-style power play suddenly lurches into a bonkers Edward Bond military apocalypse – while Colm goes mad, slopes away and makes moving reparation with the daughter, Barbara (Joanna Horton), of a business rival he systematically destroyed. On the way, he acquires a dead black cat, presumably an RSC property remaindered on Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
In another part of the field, as it were, Sam Hazeldine’s love-struck insurance executive pursues his doomed, and always rain-sodden, affair with Nikki Amuka-Bird’s married colleague. Colm hunts a squirrel, an after-effect of his dream about woodland furry things hopping through his bedroom window, and he and Barbara build an encampment.
It’s all a bit wild and woolly, but never boring, with lots of ferociously and indiscriminately foul language and countless cocked triggers that fail to go bang when pulled, another sure sign of muddle and confusion.