King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays: revolving around broken family ties, jealousy, betrayal, corruption, and madness, it addresses the problems at the heart of human society – problems which are no less relevant today than they were in 1608, when the play was first published. The RSC’s current production embraces this bleakness but is not overwhelmed by it; often, when performing King Lear, it is easy to reduce the play to misery and desolation, leaving the audience feeling drained and disheartened. However, Doran’s version taps into the true spirit of the play, plumbing its emotional depths while at the same time revelling in the moments of dark comedy.
The characterisation in this production is spot-on: it is often difficult to understand exactly how characters are meant to be feeling – especially in a play with such a convoluted textual history, which makes it impossible to find an authoritative version of the script – but here the characters’ motivations are plausible and easy to understand. In the opening scene, we see Edmund’s shame and resentment as his father jokes about his illegitimacy, and although his later behaviour is fairly inexcusable, we can understand that after years of such treatment, Edmund has had enough. Essiedu’s performance is one of the most enjoyable things about this production, as he gives us a charmingly witty villain, who could give Iago a run for his money as Shakespeare’s best baddie. Sher’s Lear, too, is perfectly pitched: volatile but not psychotic, old but not doddering, cruel and yet sympathetic.
Turner’s set has been well thought-out: the lavishness of the King’s court – represented by set pieces which are brought on and off with each scene change – and the costumes of the courtiers present a stark contrast to the barren, brutalist background. This contrast skilfully reminds us of the bareness which lies beneath the pomp of the court – especially as Lear is pushed further and further from the centre of power, shedding his gold chain, his fur coat, his lavish household comforts, and finally his sanity. The production cleverly takes advantage of the different levels available: Lear is initially brought in on a litter, sitting high above his subjects, and his fall from power is literally enacted as this image is repeated at different points in the production, with Lear finally reduced to a weak old man in rags, sitting on a cart.
The stage is haunted by ghost-like, cloaked figures, reminding us of the marginalised, those on the fringes of society, who are so severely neglected by the main characters for most of the play. Lear’s Act 3 realisation of the plight of many of his subjects (‘Oh, I have ta’en / Too little care of this!’) is the first time that a world outside the court is acknowledged within the play, and Doran is keen to show us that this is problematic. At no point, however, does the production feel moralistic or patronising – these complex issues are raised, but never oversimplified. This statement is true of the whole production: it revels in, rather than hiding from, the issues raised by the text of the play (particularly the disappearance of the Fool), offering us a King Lear which is nuanced, sensitive, and heart-breaking.