The defining word for this production is “bare” – the set is a white box, stretching back for yards, with the act and scene number projected on to its minimalist walls. The actors, too, are often stripped: Glenda Jackson’s Lear wanders around in just a shirt and long socks for much of the third act, wordlessly communicating knock-kneed fragility. Elsewhere, Gary Sefton’s Oswald takes off his top while sparring; Harry Melling, as Edgar, joins Daniel Radcliffe in the brotherhood of former Harry Potter actors who have gone full-frontal in the theatre; and Simon Manyonda, playing his half-brother, Edmund, seems hardly able to keep his bum in his trousers.
Advance publicity focused on Jackson, who has returned to the stage at the age of 80 after 23 years as a Labour MP. Accordingly, it is a starry production, and no one in the supporting cast threatens to pull the focus away from her. There has been no rewriting to accommodate her gender; that the “king” is a woman quickly becomes unremarkable.
Overall, however, this production relies a little too heavily on its star to make up for deficiencies elsewhere. Its tone is too level. Unlike, say, Simon Russell Beale in the 2014 National Theatre production, Jackson does not seem like a raging, wounded bull in the opening scene, in which Lear carves up the kingdom. Already frail, she has less far to fall. And the decision not to mike up the actors – except for the storm scenes, in which the scenery extends to rustling sheets of bin-bag material – obliges them to project their voices with such force that the performances can feel unsubtle.
There are also two catastrophic misjudgements. The first is to introduce the vengeful bastard Edmund by having him soliloquise while doing press-ups and later showing him masturbating over the brilliance of his evil plan. Talk about distractions from the text. The second is during the blinding of the loyal Gloucester (Karl Johnson), when Danny Webb’s Cornwall (style inspiration: advertising creative) and Jane Horrocks’s Regan (style inspiration: cougar divorcee inappropriately dressed for a funeral) undermine the scene’s pathos by throwing an eyeball into the crowd. “Ugh,” the stalls said as one, giggling nervously as we dodged to avoid getting splattered in the face.
Equally surprising titters were elicited by Rhys Ifans as the Fool, a part that can sometimes be as funny as a comedy piano tie. Looming over Jackson in a half-worn Superman onesie, he infused his patter with the perfect amount of pathos. The boisterousness of Lear’s entourage – or, as I thought of them, Glenda’s Banter Squadron – was sufficiently pronounced to make the audience feel early sympathy for Goneril (Celia Imrie) and Regan as they cut their father’s attendants first to 50, then 25, then none.
Where the production shone was in the final act. Approaching it, the possibilities offered by sex-swapping the lead role became apparent: when Jackson grabbed her groin to make a macho point, the artificiality was obvious; when she raged against the “sulphurous pit” below women’s waists, it felt more complicatedly misogynistic. Finally, as the king cradles the dead Cordelia (Morfydd Clark), we realised that this is a daughter whom Lear would have carried and suckled; the king has lost flesh that was once her flesh. Here, the bareness of the production allowed us to glimpse something new: a mother’s grief. l
The Old Vic’s “King Lear” runs until 3 December. oldvictheatre.com
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. l
The Barbican’s “King Lear” runs until 23 December. barbican.org.uk