Review of King Lear
If Hamlet has always been the Everest of Shakespearean roles, then surely Lear represents the canon’s K2: maybe not as big, yet a far more exhaustingly challenging & dangerous peak that has previously been more than a match for Olivier, Gielgud and famously left Ian Holm stricken with stage-fright. How audacious then that Lear has been Glenda Jackson’s pick to mark her come-back to the stage after a 25 year hiatus in Deborah Warner’s gender-blind modern production in the Old Vic. How audacious still that this production runs parallel (and thus invites inevitable comparison) with Sir Anthony Sher’s RSC Lear playing at the Barbican.
The curtain is already up as the audience takes their seats to reveal a spare and non-descript stage, apparently, at the end of rehearsals as cleaners hoover around the actors feet. The cleaners leave for the play to begin and for the production to thus make a statement of intent that it shall resolutely exist within its own theatrical reality. And chief amongst its particular realities is Glenda Jackson’s epicene King Lear: splendidly snarling and bitter who rails against her favourite Cordelia as she refuses to trot out the false flatteries of her sisters and thus sets in motion the play’s tragic events. Any lingering prejudices of gender-blind casting immediately vanish in the face of Jackson’s imperious command of stage, fluency of verse-speaking and capture of Lear’s immediate dark, foreboding that division of his kingdom will bode nothing but ill.
Rhys Ifans, who gloriously stole the show as Hugh Grant’s mad flat-mate in Notting Hill, is inspired casting here as a Superman-caped fool. Ifans is fine in capturing the “professional” madness of the fool as a counter-point to the genuine madness of Lear. At once covering his eyes with egg-shells to mirror Lear’s moral blindness before then donning clown’s make-up to contrast the artifice necessary to occupy his “fool’s office” with his master’s unadorned and natural, foolish state.
Elsewhere, there is uniformly fine work from Celia Imrie, Jane Horrocks and Morfydd Clark as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively. Imrie’s Goneril is an imperious elder child holding her father in contempt as he declines: his demise not soon enough for her to assume regal office. Horrock’s Regan is a high-heeled, good-time girl totally out of kilter with her father’s “old world” and a similarly undutiful daughter. Clark is the affecting, innocent honesty of the youngest.
In an otherwise excellently cast production, Gloucester’s sons are the only weak links. Harry Melling is an annoyingly shouty Edgar whose full-frontal nudity when disguised as Tom of Bedlam adds nothing to the drama. Simon Manyonda as the bastard half-brother Edmund fails to channel the depth of chippy anger resulting from his bastardy that drives his Machiavellian villainy. A further display of nudity once again distracts rather than drives the characterisation.
The final eclaircissment in Lear, what with its battles, duels and deaths can trap a director into leading the production into the melodramatic. However, I felt this was one element of Warner’s production, executed with measured and pacing, that lifted it above Gregory Doran’s current RSC run. But ultimately, it was Glenda Jackson that emphatically stamped this as a winning and the winning production. Everything from her opening strut, with her kingly and parental anguish, to her final moving howl as she learns of Cordelia’s death constantly underlined a masterful return to the stage. London theatre audiences dispense comparatively few standing ovations: tonight’s standing ovation was fully deserved for a theatrical summit that had been climbed with sure-footed aplomb.
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