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Reviews West End & Central Published 30 January 2011

King Lear

in rep 21 January - 4 February 2010

A compelling but flawed take on Shakespeare’s “unstageable” tragedy.

Neil Dowden

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.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

King Lear Show Info


Produced by The RSC

Directed by David Farr

Cast includes Greg Hicks

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