The RSC’s successful season at the Roundhouse concludes with David Farr’s compelling but flawed production of King Lear, first seen at Stratford last March.
Once notoriously considered ‘unstageable’, this epic journey of human suffering in a seemingly amoral universe is certainly a huge challenge for everyone involved, not least the actor in the title role. But while Greg Hicks’s Lear has impressive presence and Farr’s production has its strong points, ultimately the show fails to deliver the full emotional impact of the tragedy.
The staging is distracting in its mixed-period setting, with fur-lined long cloaks of Ancient Britain and medieval breastplates and swords jostling with Edwardian-style frockcoats and First World War uniforms and rifles. Evidently the idea is to show how Lear’s downfall is reflected in the break-up of family and nation, as suggested by designer Jon Bausor’s disintegrating wall and cracked windows, and Jon Clark’s flickering chandeliers and strip lights. But the overall impression is rather confused and uncertain.
There are, however, many powerful moments of drama. The great second scene at court when Lear publicly announces his abdication is superbly done, with a hushed sense of suspense amongst the attendants before the king surprises them by entering deliberately from a different gangway than expected, and slowly sits on the throne in complete authority. This is nicely contrasted near the end of the play when a seemingly shrunken aged Lear, now physically and mentally frail, is pushed in a wheelchair to the same spot on stage.
While there is an ominous sense of impending disaster, the storm scene itself lacks power – with Lear alone standing under a shower – though the mock trial of his unnatural daughters Goneril and Regan in the hovel on the heath is brilliantly realised with a real feeling of manic mayhem. The later battle and fight scenes are disappointingly unexciting, but Lear’s tearful reunion with the redemptive Cordelia finally conveys some genuine pathos.
Hicks is too young to play Lear, with the physical energy of a man in his prime, so that it is more difficult to believe in his retirement or senility, though he does convey the world- weariness of someone who has eventually gained self-knowledge after much tribulation. He is a master of speaking Shakespearean verse, even if it is a little mannered at times, but although the technique is admirable the performance is not as moving as it should be. The king’s anger and madness come across more strongly than his vulnerability and humanity.
Elsewhere in the cast, Kelly Hunter’s coldly haughty Goneril and Katy Stephens’s sensually cruel Regan are nicely differentiated, though Samantha Young’s bland Cordelia struggles to make flesh the moral lodestone of the play. Geoffrey Freshwater is a touchingly gullible Gloucester who pays for his mistakes and bravery in the hardest possible way, and although Tunji Kasim’s uncharismatic Edmund does not persuade us of his ruthless ambition, Charles Aitken in the difficult part of Edgar makes a wholly convincing mad Tom. Darrell D’Silva is the bluntly spoken, loyal courtier Kent and Sophie Russell (upgraded from Nurse after stepping in for the strangely departed Kathryn Hunter) is more melancholy than funny as the Fool, whose home truths reach Lear far too late.