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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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Upon Remembering Westminster Bridge

"Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie, Open unto the fields, and to the sky" - things to help remember the best of Westminster Bridge.

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by,
 A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare ...

When I think of Westminster Bridge, I always think of these lines by Wordsworth. But whenever I turn on the news this week, the thought of them makes my chest seize. Other images come to mind instead.

On Wednesday 22nd March, the bridge turned into a death trap. An assailant driving a rented car drove up onto the pavement and straight into the path of passersbys. Four of those people are now dead. Tens of others are severely injured. 

The two associations now sit alongside each other in a grotesque marriage. 

But as those present become able to share what they saw and felt, we will likely learn more about the acts of compassion that unfolded in the minutes and hours after the attack.

The bridge itself is also becoming a site for remembrance. And just as laying flowers can become marks of defiance against an act nobody wanted or condones, so too can memories. Not memories of horror stumbled upon on social media. But of the brave actions of police and paramedics, of the lives the victims led, and of Westminster's "mighty heart" that these events have so entirely failed to crush.

So if you find yourself upon the bridge in coming weeks, perhaps commuting to work or showing visitors round the city, here are some other thoughts had upon Westminster Bridge which no man in an estate car will ever take away:

Tourists taking photos with friends:


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The end of the film Pride - and the 1985 march on which it is based

 

Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway’s “moment in June”

One feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can't be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.

 

Brilliant Boudicca guarding the bridge's Northern end


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Penis Shadows! (I say no more)

 

 

Sci-fi scenes from 28 Days Later

 

The “Build Bridges Not Walls” protest from January this year


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And “Upon Westminster Bridge” by William Wordsworth (1802)

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.