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Review: King Lear (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)

Antony Sher is a colossal force as King Lear in the RSC's production

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The anticipation has been high. Antony Sher's King Lear has been a long time coming. Director Gregory Doran has never tackled the Shakespearean Everest before. It's the undoubted jewel in the crown of the 400th anniversary season. So does it live up to the big build-up? Well, mostly.

Sher himself is as monumental as the role. From the opening scene in which Lear divides his kingdom between his three daughters, he's already hinting at the descent into madness that's to come, and his every movement, nuance of voice and twitch of the magnificent beard is meticulously placed. There are moments when the forensic preparation threatens to overwhelm any sense of spontaneity, but there's no doubt you're in the hands of one of his generation's great Shakespearean actors, and he's never less than mesmerising to watch.

With such a colossal force providing the production's centre of gravity, the orbiting satellites are always going to struggle, and some of the supporting players are running to keep up. Those who fare best are Paapa Essiedu as the brilliantly scheming bastard Edmund and the two older courtiers, Kent and Gloucester, touchingly played by Antony Byrne and David Troughton respectively. Each carries an authority and a weight that make their performances highly watchable and, at times, extremely poignant.

Niki Turner's designs present Lear's ancient Britain on a largely bare stage, with a brick-wall backdrop that flies out to reveal a bright white canvas, apparently representing the cliffs at Dover, or perhaps the possibility of a bright future while Cordelia is still alive. But the set doesn't really add much and, like Doran's curiously tentative direction, feels oddly functional, rather than an integral part of the whole.

There are some strange decisions, too, not least the one that places the blinding of Gloucester inside a perspex box. Notwithstanding the protection it affords the first couple of rows of the audience from some particularly explosive eyeballs, it makes the action difficult to see and constrains the actors' voices almost to the point of inaudibility.

Elsewhere, Ilona Sekacz's music punctuates proceedings very effectively, and there's a nice line in accentuating Lear's repeated appeals to the gods with some suitably atmospheric drums.

Maybe it's the weight of expectation that makes excessive demands on this show, but there is a slight sense of anticlimax about the whole affair. There's no question this is a very fine Lear, with a terrific performance at its heart and lots of additional qualities to commend it. I just wanted it to soar more.

King Lear runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 15 October before transferring to the Barbican Theatre on 10 November.

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes