Natalie Simpson, as Cordelia, Antony Sher as King Lear and Antony Byrne as Kent. Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

King Lear

Royal Shakespeare Company



SHAKESPEARE wrote his Lear at a time of England’s unrest with plague and diseases spreading at an alarming rate and this is reflected within his words.

King Lear is about the frailty of one’s own strength and power. Now an aging king, Lear looks to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. The condition of the dowry is that each daughter must tell how much they love and honour him.

As Cordelia, played bylear and daughters Natalie Simpson, his most beloved daughter refuses to declare her love in public, a fit of rage engulfs him and we see the consequences unfolding in a production directed by Gregory Doran and with Anthony Sher in the eponymous role.

Exploring the question of what the physical madness of Lear represents, Doran does well to point to the fact that there is an end to his delirium. There was a heavy connotation of exhaustion being the true point of Lear’s downfall, and that is a trait of which some of us might know from first hand.

In the parallel of Brexit, Lear is an interesting play to watch in light of a country divided. Just as we have seen in modern politics, Lear also has a divided house and Doran is not afraid to show the bloody results.

He has set this Lear within its original time of the early 17th century. In today’s world, greediness and excess are seen in every walk of life as we constantly read in news articles within money scandals and expenses to name a few. Lear is a man who is constantly wanting for more but fails to recognise what he already has. It is the reflection of deeply flawed human qualities that give the play an endurance that allows it to be timeless.

Sher’s Lear is totally fitting to the role. After playing the fool in Adrian Noble’s 1982 production, he has now turned to the part of the king. Sher has everything to offer and it is clear that there must have been extensive conversations between Doran and himself to unearth the essence of the spoilt man.

First of all, his very presence on stage is regal enough to imagine no other person in the role; when he enters for the first time, he is carried by many of his servants in a clear boxed carriage.

Doran also brings in the concept that Lear possesses wizard like qualities, making him more than just a king while Sher shouts up to the heavens and laments as he throws curses out to his daughters and all who disagree with him.

He has the perfect balance between a stern king and the vulnerable old man he becomes in the second half of the play and Sher does well to humanise the downfall of Lear and giving the madness a beautiful understanding of Lear’s journey and evoking waves of sympathy from the audience. Sher has mastered the two extremes of his character with excellent light which brings a new meaning to the conclusion of the play.

Like most situations, there is always more than one villain. In this production, Regan is portrayed with a salt Gloucesterto sting all wounds. Kelly Williams’ portrayal drips with fear. In the most harrowing moment of the play, the torture of Gloucester, played or perhaps more endured by David Troughton, sees a clear glass box used to amplify the moment and manipulate each voice and sound into a new experience.

David Troughton is quite superb as the Earl of Gloucester, tortured and blinded, seen here with Oliver Johnstone as Edgar/Poor Tom

 Ragan not only instigated the plan, but worse, enjoyed his torture. Everything was seen and there were gasps echoing from the auditorium as the scene unfolded.

Williams has also built a lovely bond with Nia Gwynne who plays sister Goneril, but it is Regan who is the real reflection of the wrath of her father.

Niki Turner’s design is also superb, keeping a simple and open set, but capturing the imagination of the audience with flashes of light. The play is set in various places, including Lear’s many palaces and the fields of Dover, and the storm scene is just epic.

Turner’s eye for costume leaves a very impressive stamp to the regal presence of Lear which leaves us under no illusion that we are under the thumb of a superior king

The sub-plot of Gloucester and his sons Edmund, played by Paapa Essiedu, and Edgar was also given full attention by Doran. The relationship of the father and son was touching, even in the face of tragedy. Oliver Johnstone, who played Edgar was fantastic and ended the play with a strong soliloquy overflowing with emotion.

With a strong cast and a director with a genius mind, Doran’s Lear is magical. It has the power to frighten, excite the mind and provokes great empathy towards humanity. This is a version that will be etched in RSC history. To 15-10-16 at Stratford then at the Barbican, London from 10-11-16 to 23-12-16.

Elizabeth Halpin


There is a live screening of King Lear from the RSC stage in Stratford-upon-Avon on Wednesday, October 12 where it can be seen in cinemas throughout the Midlands. For a full list click  HERE.


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