The Royal Shakespeare Company: King Lear

King Lear’s descent into madness while everyone around him seeks to betray and acquire is one of Shakespeare’s pithiest tragedies. Powerful psychological scenarios of suffering, duty, and family are universally understood.

I wish I could tell you this production is as emotionally affecting as it is technically wonderful, but, alas, I can’t. It does, however, have superb parentheses and remains an engrossing saga.

Nia Gwynne, Antony Sher, Clarence Smith

Synopsis: With pomp and certainty, in order to divide his kingdom, King Lear (Antony Sher), asks each of his daughters to vouchsafe how much she loves him. Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Regan (Kelly Williams) gush, both with clear ulterior motive. Each is given one-third of the kingdom. Favorite daughter Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni), however, has nothing false to say and says nothing. She’s disinherited and married to the King of France (Buom Tihngang) without a dowry. The loyal Earl of Kent (Antony Byrne) is banished for defending her.

Antony Sher, Graham Turner

Deceived by his bastard son, Edmund (Paapa Essiedu), the Earl of Gloucester (David Troughton) disinherits his legitimate son, Edgar (Oliver Johnstone), who goes into hiding. Both his daughters reject Lear who somehow ends up alone with the Fool (Graham Turner) having dispensed with his hundred knights. Neither king and fool nor his now blinded father recognize Edgar as a beggar.

Cordelia has landed at Dover with the French Army and sees to it that her father is safe. Her  sisters have both made pacts with Edmund. They die by poison and knife. Treachery is discovered by Edgar who kills Edmund in battle, but it’s too late. Lear and Cordelia are murdered.

Antony Sher, Oliver Johnstone

Antony Sher (Lear) seems to gurgle when he speaks impeding clarity. He barely utilizes his body even at the play’s most wrenching moments, doesn’t appear to connect to other characters, and hasn’t created distinct portrayal of losing touch with reality.

To my mind, tonight’s “star” is Oliver Johnstone as Edgar. The thespian is vibrant and visceral. He contorts as if without axis, slips from one hallucination to the next, lashes out and retreats with the speed of a snake’s tongue, inhabits love and despair, and fights with prowess.

Paapa Eddiedu, David Troughton

Also notable are Graham Turner as the mercurial fool now singing and dancing, now reciting with hidden wisdom; always moving like a dancer. Clowning is dark, devotion palpable, desperation sympathetic; Antony Byrne (Earl of Kent) is a buoy on rough seas; grounded, realistic, projecting stoicism and commitment. David Troughton (Earl of Gloucester) delivers a solid performance throughout. These actors enunciate as well as they communicate, offering lines, not as written break by break, but as they would be spoken.

As Glouster’s illegitimate son, Edmund, Paapa Essiendu appears to be in a more contemporary interpretation of the piece than that which is otherwise presented. It jars. Mimi Ndiweni (Cordelia) has grace, presence, and vibrates with feeling. Enunciation doesn’t support.

Antony Bryne, Antony Sher, Mimi Ndiweni

Director Gregory Doran utilizes the large stage with finesse and theatricality making two-handers as compelling as court or army scenes. No one crosses the stage without reason. Ritual is arresting. Transparent “box” walls are imaginatively utilized by direction. (You may turn away during the blinding of Gloucester.) Focus is excellent, pacing skilled.

Production values are imaginative and first rate. Employment of a motorized glass box to raise and metaphorically confine characters is splendid excepting only during Lear’s rage against the storm where he needs to be grounded and is not. Gnarled, skinny-fingered trees and branches work beautifully representing devastation. Ceremonial tridents and shadow silhouettes of soldiers stand out against stark backgrounds. Every piece of “furniture” is harsh and apt.

Costumes are redolent, appropriate to period, and aesthetically pleasing together on stage. (Set and Costume Design Niki Turner) Tim Mitchell’s Lighting Design, Ilona Sekacz’ Music and Jonathan Ruddick’s Sound Design make the most of every physical aspect and dramatic turn. Storms are unnerving.

Bret Yount’s duel is one of the most realistic I’ve seen.

Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Antony Sher

The Royal Shakespeare Company
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran
BAM Harvey Theater  
651 Fulton Street
Through April 29, 2018

About Alix Cohen (884 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.