Posted by: Richard Frost | 5 Apr 2020

Royal Shakespeare Company: King Lear review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: November 2004
Outlet: Durham21
Photo: John Haynes © RSC

Richard Frost sees the Royal Shakespeare Company largely redeem themselves with King Lear, although he has some reservations about Corin Redgrave’s portrayal of the title character

Completing their season of Shakespeare’s great tragedies for Newcastle Theatre Royal, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) here sought to compensate for a slightly underwhelming response to Hamlet and Macbeth with a mammoth 4-hour production of King Lear.

King of the Hill?
As one of Shakespeare’s most psychologically developed characters, perhaps the best place to start in any review is the portrayal of Lear himself.

For such a daunting role, the RSC have unsurprisingly turned to an internationally renowned name in Corin Redgrave (pictured below). With former credits including film roles in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Persuasion, there can be no argument that he is an experienced and, in truth, excellent actor. And like the play in general, it must be said that on the whole his performance was impressive…although he struggled to overcome some glaring obstacles.

Engaging, entertaining and at times heartbreakingly believable, Redgrave nevertheless consistently failed to reach the level of a truly definitive or landmark performance.

The heart of the problem is that Redgrave just didn’t quite seem to fit Lear’s near superhuman ego, perhaps simply due to his relatively slight physique, or more fundamentally because of his acting background in modern theatre and relatable characterisations. This was never more apparent than in the opening scenes, where he is drowned under so many furs that physically it is hard to believe he was once an omnipotent force as both king and father.

Admittedly this was excellently compensated for, as Redgrave made the most of Lear’s inherent absurdity in renouncing power to create a funnier Lear than I’d thought possible.

For instance, as he petulantly dashes paint whilst dividing his kingdom at the outset, Redgrave brilliantly suggests his childishness, and so averted the need to create a truly epic and charismatic Lear. And yet, perhaps this very absurdity left his descent into madness slightly less surprising, and the sense of his increasingly nihilistic world view, whilst impeccably acted, less shocking.

Corin Redgrave as King Lear in a 2004 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Acting Speaks Louder than Words
This is not to belittle an almost uniformly excellent acting display elsewhere though, as Louis Hilyer forged a powerful onstage bond with Redgrave and really captured the character Kent’s loyalty and devoted honesty to his master.

Matthew Rhys as Edmund was also a truly charismatic villain who drew unlikely admiration for a man who declares “now, gods, stand up for bastards”, whilst David Hargreaves excelled himself after the cruel gouging out of Gloucester’s eyes. His gut-wrenching blank stares really enabled him to bring out the close parallels between the sickening betrayals of Gloucester and Lear by their own children.

Credit too must go to the ever-brilliant RSC effects team for the believable enactment of scenes like Gloucester’s torture.

However, perhaps the most interesting innovations amongst the supporting crew stemmed from set designer Tom Piper. With an unpromisingly plain set of 4 pine tables and 3 benches, Piper managed to give each scene a true sense of individuality, as the arrangements varied starkly between an imposing dining hall, a more casual meeting area and even a towering, covered platform. This gave the perfect balance between a sense of variation and individuality crucial to a 4-hour show, whilst managing to avoid overwhelming the themes of madness and justice that dominate the production.

Even better was the skilful coordination of Piper’s vision with that of fight director Michael Ranson. Although a far less violent play than last season’s Titus Andronicus, for example, Ranson’s memorably arranged choreography truly came to the fore in the dynamic duel between Edmund and Edgar (Pal Aron). Their believably aggressive sword strokes are played out in a fight scene that makes the most of the set’s varying levels, as they clash on tables and roll expertly around seemingly haphazard bench layouts.

Back in Black Stereotypes
If there was a standout criticism though it would have to centre on Leo Wringer’s controversial characterisation of Lear’s Fool.

Stepping in as understudy for the absent John Normington, Wringer thus found himself playing the Fool whilst also being the show’s only black man. This should not have been a problem since, of all Shakespeare’s plays, the Fool in King Lear is probably the wisest and most perceptive as he blurs the boundary between foolishness and misused power, memorably asserting that “if thou follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb”.

However, rather than inverting 19th-century stereotypes of foolish black men, Wringer revelled in exaggerating his character’s stupidity. Dressed in a jester’s outfit and consciously using a heavily affected Caribbean accent, Wringer transformed himself into a caricature of racial inferiority and foolishness without a trace of irony. This stereotyping cannot really be sustained by moderate 21st-century theatre, and so stand-in Wringer’s total reworking of the character left him feeling out of place in the RSC’s production.

Playing to their Strengths
This aside, it must be emphasised that the RSC put on a largely excellent production of King Lear; it’s a feat in itself to keep audiences involved for a full 4-hour show.

Credit must go to Bill Alexander who achieved this by emphasising the universal questions raised in King Lear, rather than simply directing the fall of the title character. By heavily emphasising the nihilistic madness of the excellent supporting characters Gloucester, Edmund and Edgar, Alexander sensibly diverted Lear away from the need for an imposing and grand stature that Redgrave was unable to provide.

Perhaps not perfect then, but the RSC must be highly commended for providing an absorbing and entertaining production. King Lear made the most of an unparalleled level of talent both in front and behind the stage…and never more so than in minimising the significance of its minor flaws.


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