Bill Alexander’s production of King Lear, the latest in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Tragedies season, sets out its stall early. As the spotlight lingers on the monarch's two eldest daughters and their husbands, we’re aware that this play is going to be about their ambitions as much as it is about Lear’s foolishness. And as the long evening (this is a near full version of the text) progresses, family ties aren’t going to get in the way – think The Sopranos in a pagan setting.
Some recent productions have tried to make Gonerill (as spelled in the programme for this staging) and Regan more sympathetic – not so here. Emily Raymond and Ruth Gemmell are the embodiment of selfishness, almost gleefully counting the days before they can get their hands on the levers of power. Gemmell’s Regan in particular is the daughter that every parent would dread having.
Corin Redgrave’s Lear is far from the textbook idea of a man fast approaching senility. Distinctly short of white hairs and displaying a rude zestfulness that belies his years (it’s notable that one line that's cut is when Lear describes himself as “four score years and upwards”), Redgrave acts more like a middle-aged man, aware of his fading powers. The modern-day equivalent would be buying Ferraris: here he disports himself with a hundred knights.
Redgrave's performance crackles with energy, but one never gets the sense of the madness that grips, and his robustness means that we lose some of the pathos of the play's ending.
Still, as Lear sadly strokes the faces of all his dead daughters at the end, we’re reminded that this is a family tragedy above all: a father and daughters, torn apart through a mixture of arrogance, ambition and obstinacy. The political dimension takes a back seat as the family crisis is played out.
The production also benefits from an excellent Edmund, courtesy of Matthew Rhys. Displaying charm and menace in equal portions, he’s a perfect counterweight to the ambitious Gonerill and Regan. There are excellent performances, too, from Leo Wringer’s Fool and Sian Brooke’s Cordelia.
This is an evening that requires stamina - the 11.00pm finish will be daunting for many, particularly those at the mercy of public transport. But while this production of King Lear is not by any means one of the great ones, Shakespeare's masterpiece of family cruelty retains enough that’s worthwhile.
- Maxwell Cooter
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from this productions earlier run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Sir Ralph Richardson once remarked that playing a great Shakespearean tragic role was like lying on your back and firing a machine gun at targets painted on the ceiling. You were bound to hit a few. Corin Redgrave, stepping into the role triumphantly realised by his father at this same theatre 51 years ago, duly hits some bulls eyes, but goes well wide of the mark with others.
The production, which clocks in at just under four hours, opens stylishly. Regan, Goneril and others sit at a long white table in darkness facing the audience. A spotlight moves along, picking out individual faces in turn. Enter Lear, hobbling in on a stick. But as he nears, he abandons his prop with a cackle. It was just a joke. Clearly this is no 'aged', 'reverent' and 'gracious' monarch.
The hallmark of this Lear is childish playfulness which becomes petulance when he doesn't get his way. But in playing him thus it is hard to see his abdication and subsequent humiliation as tragic - tragic not just for him, but for his kingdom. Redgrave achieves pathos but not gravitas.
And returning to perform Shakespeare for the first time after some years absence one wonders whether he is `'match fit'. This is the first Lear at the RST since the late Nigel Hawthorne's performance which was similarly underpowered. On the recent BBC recording of the role, Redgrave acquits himself well. In this vast auditorium, however, his Lear is not so successful.