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REVIEW RSC King Lear: May the Sher force be with you!

Antony Sher as Lear and David Troughton as Gloucester
Antony Sher as Lear and David Troughton as Gloucester

King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until October 2017

Didn’t you just love the Olympics? It’s a true test of almost godlike human endurance and ability. The stars of the show, the real players, like Mo Farah and Usain Bolt, make the whole spectacle so eminently watchable. They are legends in their own lifetimes; so mighty, they even have a signature celebration pose: the Mobot and the 'Lightning Bolt'.

Hot on the heels of that magnificent display, and indeed the whole Brexit debacle, comes this incredibly prescient and poignant production of King Lear. The hero here, as indeed it should be, is Antony Sher. His recent performances on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage have been absolute blinders: he totally owned Falstaff and his Willy Loman was riveting and revelatory. They are bravura turns that seem to have logically led to his Lear. What would he do with it? Oh, the suspense.

Our first glimpse of Sher’s Lear is a shocker. His daughters and the court await his arrival ahead of the whole dividing the kingdom thing. With huge pomp, his servants enter carrying him way up high on a throne which is encased in a gold-flecked glass box — like a very grand sedan chair. It’s a ridiculously magnificent entrance!

As he descends from on high, and clambers out of his royal conveyance, he maintains a godlike bearing even though Sher’s short-stature is swamped in rich, trailing fur, and he sports a great bushy Zeus-like beard; a contrast that is curious, almost humorous. He glides around, being bossy, chopping up his kingdom, making mistakes.

Sher’s Lear is clearly complex, and obviously heading for a fall. As he punishes Cordelia for refusing to toady and flatter him like her sisters, he invokes “the sacred radiance of the sun/The mysteries of Hecate, and the night” and disowns her. As he taps into this pagan power, Sher does a posture that becomes Lear’s signature move of sorts, his Mobot if you will: one hand is held aloft, palm open to the heavens, while the other hand is thrust down, as he summons the unseen gods of Olympus, Sher shakes with intensity.

Sher’s performance is top-of-the-podium-worthy stuff. In the scene where he curses Goneril with infertility (“Into her womb convey sterility/Dry up in her the organs of increase/And from her derogate body never spring/A babe to honor her”), again summoning his pagan power pose, is incredibly disconcerting.

But when his power starts to wane and vulnerable Lear is exposed, Sher is at his best... In one brilliant scene he goes to do the ‘move’ and everyone else rolls their eyeballs, almost a “not now dad we’re busy” moment — the grand patriarch’s look of bewilderment is genuinely touching.

There are other brilliant, medal-worthy performances here too. Papa Essiedu is totally charismatic as bad-boy Edmund — he delivers some of his famous ‘bastard’ lines with delicious comic understatement as witnessed with his Hamlet recently. His brother Edgar is played by a Oliver Johnstone with real verve; his turn as the madness-feigning Poor Tom, shivering, semi-naked, debased, is so convincing you feel uncomfortably exposed watching him. Antony Byrne as a muscular, tattooed Kent stood out too. Natalie Simpson, last seen as mad Ophelia here, is a sweet and elegant Cordelia.

But for me it was David Troughton as Gloucester that really deserved silver to Sher’s gold. His journey from credulous buffoon to broken, blinded and eventually humble sage is totally believable.

As always with director Greg Doran, the delight here is the clarity of the storytelling. It’s a long play so there are slumps, but there are also moments of resounding triumph. I especially liked the infamous storm scene. Designer Niki Turner’s set is stripped back, bare and harsh…. But then up rises a platform, covered in shimmering gold sheeting, on which sit a going-bonkers Lear, accompanied by his quelled Fool (a suitably quirky Graham Turner), up and up they rise until they are atop a mountain, the heavens open, lightning blinds, and Sher begins his mightiest and most desperate invocation: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes”. It’s thrillingly ace.

By the end, Sher is dressed in his underwear: bright white nightie and longjohns, the furry and fury of his pagan power long gone. That final scene — where he is tragically united with Cordelia in death, is properly, brilliantly moving.

Review published 8th December

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