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The Barbican's King Lear hovers too often between tragedy and farce

Anthony Sher takes on the great role of Lear, skilfully capturing the king’s transition from demagoguery to haunting collapse.

A year ago, during the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London season at the Barbican, I saw Antony Sher as Sir John Falstaff in Gregory Doran’s production of Henry IV Part 2. I’d never much cared for Sher, who is 67, before this performance, finding him a touch too mannered and actorly for my taste. (I was still at school when he did his celebrated turn as Richard III in 1984.)

But I was impressed by Sher as Falstaff. There was nothing self-conscious about his performance. He inhabited the role so naturally that you forgot about the actor – the ghost in the machine – and saw only the man he was meant to be, in all his strange complexity and gluttonous frivolity.

Sher is short but, as Falstaff, he assumed immense proportions as he limped bulkily around the stage, grey-bearded and wild-haired. His wide, smiling eyes only lost their shine at the point of his final rejection by his old friend, the newly crowned Henry V: “I know thee not, old man.”

Sher conveyed the pathos of this humiliation by a subtle change of facial expression, from happy wonder to bewilderment. It was as if he had been awakened to his true self and how desolate that felt.

Now Sher has returned to the Barbican in the great role of Lear, which I studied as an undergraduate so intensely that some of its poetry is scorched into my consciousness. Once again, he is directed by Doran, who is his husband and the RSC’s artistic director. Once again, he is grey-bearded and wide-eyed, and also seemingly limping: a garrulous, stiff-backed old man with three daughters and no wife, who loves foolishly and rules autocratically in a pagan Britain of gods and terrors where the “late eclipses in the sun” portend ill tidings.

As this Lear traduces his tormentors, real and imagined, he sometimes glances anxiously upwards, as if he feels that he is being watched or, worse, judged by forces beyond his control. He likes control and to be adored by those he controls, which is why, as he prepares to divide his kingdom in Act I, he finds so enraging the restrained expression of love of his youngest daughter, Cordelia (Natalie Simpson).

We first encounter Lear as he is carried on to the stage inside a glass box – this later becomes a blood-spattered torture chamber in which the Earl of Gloucester is blinded. Lear wears a thick, heavy fur coat as if dressed for a Siberian winter or for the set of The Revenant, which makes him seem a bigger and much heavier man. When he speaks, his voice deepens and rasps, but it never becomes hoarse.

Later, we see Lear wandering lost in a bleached and desolate landscape, like something out of a Beckett play, wearing only white cotton undergarments. Betrayed by two of his daughters and having survived the storm, he has been driven to the edge of lunacy by pride and lunatic behaviour.

Yet there are times in this long (three hours and 15 minutes, with an interval), gruelling but often inspired production when one could be forgiven for thinking that Sher was reprising the role of Falstaff. I felt this particularly during an extended scene in which Lear and his followers gather around a table, as if in an Eastcheap tavern, to eat and drink and be entertained by the pot-bellied Fool.

The play’s final scene, in which Lear re-enters after an absence, carrying the dead Cordelia, is one of the most poignant in all of Shakespeare. It’s unusual not to hear people around you in the theatre weeping at this moment. We are at the limits of what is humanly tolerable. Stripped of power and reduced to nothing, all dignity gone, Lear has come to understand just how much he wronged Cordelia, whom he cruelly banished, and just how much he loves her.

But it is too late. We in the audience know that she is dead, having been hanged out of sight offstage. Lear refuses to accept what has happened. He asks for a feather to hold against his daughter’s lips, because if it stirs, she lives: “If it be so,/It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows/That ever I have felt.”

Lear is one of the great parts for an actor in late-middle or old age. Sher captures the king’s transition from demagoguery to tragic collapse as well as he did Falstaff’s belated awakening to the truth of who he really is. Yet I was less moved than I should have been.

In this King Lear, horror and humour are held in close proximity. The production hovers uneasily between tragedy and farce, with farce often to the fore. Paapa Essiedu – who is very good – plays Edmund, Gloucester’s evil illegitimate son, with camp energy and mostly for laughs. Some of the Fool’s clowning was so protracted that one yearned for the interval. And when a howling Lear entered with the dead Cordelia in his arms, one saw the actor, not just the man he was meant to be.

The Barbican’s “King Lear” runs until 23 December. barbican.org.uk

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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Don’t worry, Old Etonian Damian Lewis calls claims of privilege in acting “nonsense!”

The actor says over-representation of the privately educated at the top of acting is nothing to worry about – and his many, many privately educated peers agree.

In the last few years, fears have grown over the lack of working class British actors. “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today,” said Dame Julie Walters. “I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now.”

Last year, a report revealed that half of Britain’s most successful actors were privately educated. The Sutton Trust found that 42 per cent of Bafta winners over all time were educated independently. 67 per cent of British winners in the best leading actor, actress and director categories at the Oscars attended fee-paying schools – and just seven per cent of British Oscar winners were state educated.

“That’s a frightening world to live in,” said James McAvoy, “because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part. That’s not fair to begin with, but it’s also damaging for society.”

But have no fear! Old Etonian Damian Lewis is here to reassure us. Comfortingly, the privately-educated successful actor sees no problem with the proliferation of privately-educated successful actors. Speaking to the Evening Standard in February, he said that one thing that really makes him angry is “the flaring up recently of this idea that it was unfair that people from private schools were getting acting jobs.” Such concerns are, simply, “a nonsense!”

He elaborated in April, during a Guardian web chat. "As an actor educated at Eton, I'm still always in a minority," he wrote. "What is true and always rewarding about the acting profession is that everyone has a similar story about them being in a minority."

Lewis’s fellow alumni actors include Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne – a happy coincidence, then, and nothing to do with the fact that Etonians have drama facilities including a designer, carpenter, manager, and wardrobe mistress. It is equally serendipitous that Laurie, Hiddleston and Tom Hollander – all stars of last year’s The Night Manager – attended the same posh prep school, The Dragon School in Oxford, alongside Emma Watson, Jack Davenport, Hugh Dancy, Dom Joly and Jack Whitehall. “Old Dragons (ODs) are absolutely everywhere,” said one former pupil, “and there’s a great sense of ‘looking after our own’." Tom Hollander said the Dragon School, which has a focus on creativity, is the reason for his love of acting, but that’s neither here nor there.

Damian Lewis’s wife, fellow actor Helen McCrory, first studied at her local state school before switching to the independent boarding school Queenswood Girls’ School in Hertfordshire (“I’m just as happy to eat foie gras as a baked potato,” the Telegraph quote her as saying on the subject). But she says she didn’t develop an interest in acting until she moved schools, thanks to her drama teacher, former actor Thane Bettany (father of Paul). Of course, private school has had literally no impact on her career either.

In fact, it could have had an adverse affect – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s old drama teacher at Harrow, Martin Tyrell, has explained: “I feel that [Cumberbatch and co] are being limited [from playing certain parts] by critics and audiences as a result of what their parents did for them at the age of 13. And that seems to me very unfair.”

He added: “I don’t think anyone ever bought an education at Harrow in order for their son to become an actor. Going to a major independent school is of no importance or value or help at all.” That clears that up.

The words of Michael Gambon should also put fears to rest. “The more Old Etonians the better, I think!” he said. “The two or three who are playing at the moment are geniuses, aren’t they? The more geniuses you get, the better. It’s to do with being actors and wanting to do it; it’s nothing to do with where they come from.”

So we should rejoice, and not feel worried when we read a list of privately educated Bafta and Oscar winners as long as this: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dulwich College), Emilia Clarke (St Edward’s), Carey Mulligan (Woldingham School), Kate Winslet (Redroofs Theatre School), Daniel Day-Lewis (Sevenoaks School, Bedales), Jeremy Irons (Sherborne School), Rosamund Pike (Badminton), Tom Hardy (Reed), Kate Beckinsale (Godolphin and Latymer), Matthew Goode (Exeter), Rebecca Hall (Roedean), Emily Blunt (Hurtwood House) and Dan Stevens (Tonbridge).

Life is a meritocracy, and these guys were simply always the best. I guess the working classes just aren’t as talented.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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