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Theatre review: King Lear (RSC/Roundhouse) 
2nd-Feb-2011 11:57 pm
For the first but not the last time this year, London audiences have a choice of two productions of the same Shakespeare play, as the RSC's King Lear is briefly coinciding with the Donmar Warehouse's production. I actually wouldn't have booked for this one had one of my favourite actresses, Kathryn Hunter, not been slated to play the Fool, so it was a bit gutting when she quit The EnsembleTM a couple of weeks ago. So it was two Lears six weeks apart for me and my main reason for going to this one wasn't even in it any more. Fortunately David Farr's production is very different from Michael Grandage's - for one thing, at three-and-a-half hours the storytelling is more leisurely than Grandage's race to the finish. For another, where the Donmar's version was incredibly intimate, to the point of sometimes seeming to take place inside Derek Jacobi's Lear's head, Farr and designer Jon Bausor have gone for an unashamedly epic feel.

The RSC has always been fond of mixing time periods in its costumes and it's been a popular theme in its current season, with Romeo and Juliet and As You Like It employing variations on it. Here all the time periods are thrown together: a Joan of Ark-like Cordelia (Samantha Young) commands WWI soldiers, a Jacobean Edmund converses with a Victorian Gloucester, and it all takes place in a dilapidated but decidedly 20th Century warehouse. Appropriately, the interval comes after the Fool's (now played by Sophie Russell) time-bending prophecy about Merlin. The effect is of a legend lost in time and there's an apocalyptic feel, aided by the lights (from strip lights to chandeliers) that flicker and buzz menacingly whenever anything particularly nasty is about to be set in motion. Not all the ideas work - making Charles Aitken's Edgar an overtly Christ-like figure in his Poor Tom guise feels a bit out of place in this pagan atmosphere.

At 57, I'm pretty sure Greg Hicks is the youngest Lear I've seen so far. He's not an actor I've warmed to in the past and I found his rants in the early acts quickly felt repetitive - I wouldn't class him as one of the great Lears but there is one absolutely outstanding scene between him and Kelly Hunter as Goneril: The scene where he curses her with childlessness is brutally chilling and utterly clear in its malevolence. I was sitting near a large group of teenage girls, presumably from an all-girls' college, and there was a palpable shudder at this scene. In fact its effects continue to be felt, as from then on Goneril seems to be infected with some of the madness that's in the air. Elsewhere, Tunji Kasim's Edmund has the charm and good looks down to a tee but not so much the evil glint in his eye, and Young's aforementioned warlike Cordelia is nicely bolshier than a lot of portrayals I've seen. Overall the production is strong with some impressive visuals, and although the running time is tiring by the end it doesn't feel quite as long as it actually is. I never quite got enough of a grip on who Hicks' Lear really is though, to make this a classic.

King Lear by William Shakespeare is in repertory until the 4th of January at the Roundhouse, prior to the RST in Stratford later this month and the Lincoln Center in New York in July.
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