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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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear