The nature of nothing is a continual theme in King Lear. ‘Nothing can come of nothing’, Lear says to Cordelia. Gloucester also weighs in: ‘The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself’. This RSC production, directed by Gregory Doran, evokes Beckett to highlight these moments, another playwright who continually made something out of nothing. Designer Niki Turner turns the cliffs of Dover into a blank white canvas and singular tree, a sharp reference to Waiting for Godot. It’s a good example of sophisticated, bold and nuanced choices in a production that offers some brilliant moments but doesn’t ever find its full weight.
Before the storm, Turner’s stage consists of tall brick walls flanked by two raised platforms for the musicians. Minimal and symmetrical, it highlights the cavernous space of the Barbican stage. Antony Sher’s Lear is led in on a high platform adorned in full-length fur, with the court chanting in priest-like tunics carrying sun and moon banners. Seemingly pagan in ritual, Sher’s curses are accompanied by low rumbling drums. They have power, as if his proclamations themselves hold weight from a higher world.
Here Doran does well to create a realm of ominousness, of something lurking beyond. The choice to surround the stage with ‘bedlam beggars’ augments this atmosphere, gesturing towards a world unexplored in the direct action. But Lear himself seems unaware. Sher’s Lear begins as a gravelly, petulant old man whose obliviousness is at the centre of his rashness. Sher is controlled and stoic, yet childish and audacious. He captures a real gravitas coupled with instability that begins to feel precarious as the doors open to the external world. It feels like something is coming.
However, like in Beckett’s famous play, nothing ever arrives. Doran’s storm scene is deflated, and a Wicked-like lifting of Lear in the ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks’ speech feels random if not absurd. Part of the problem is the bizarre tarpaulin behind Lear, awkwardly and distractingly demonstrating tempestuous winds. The dramatic tension is never quite salvaged, and more strange choices – such as having Regan (Kelly Williams) and Cornwall (James Clyde) carry out Gloucester’s (David Troughton) eye-gouging in a glass cube, or having an underwhelming shadow battle occur behind a scrim – further cloud any overarching vision.
The cast, however, is very strong. Paapa Essiedu is a remarkable Edmund: he breathes apathy into the notorious villain’s soliloquies. Essiedu’s Edmund does not take much joy in his actions, and doesn’t betray much outward ambition; instead, he acts as if he is fated in his role, carrying out his deeds with a mechanical inevitability. Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar is the opposite, earnest and caring, and governed by a moral compass. Nia Gwynne and Williams complement each other beautifully as Goneril and Regan, creating an iciness beneath their sisterly niceties.
This Lear is a good Lear, but it’s not the best Lear out there. And with the Old Vic’s version starring Glenda Jackson currently running, it doesn’t have the buzzworthy attention that others have. Yet with an exceedingly talented cast, and glimpses of truly insightful moments, this production has immense potential. It just isn’t quite reached. More could be done with less, or even with nothing.
King Lear is on at the Barbican until 23rd December 2016. Click here for more details.