A Lear to make even grown men whimper… the RSC’s latest version is a thoughtful and multi-layered production, says QUENTIN LETTS 

Sir Antony Sher is giving notable service to the Royal Shakespeare Company. In three years he has done Falstaff in the Henry IVs, Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman and now we have his Lear, directed by his husband Greg Doran, head of the RSC.

Wherever would Stratford be without them? Mind you, is it wise for one of the state’s main arts organisations to be quite so reliant on a single couple?

Sher’s Lear enters intriguingly: borne aloft in a glass box, as though some sort of stuffed exhibit. He is high-browed, bearded, Fidel Castro in his dotage or maybe a Mongol chieftain shrouded in this thick fur coat. It must be hot to wear.

The spectacle helps one ignore, as much as is possible, the opening flaw in Shakespeare’s tragedy — the implausibility of a father behaving in such a way. Which man, particularly a widower with three daughters, has not learned to respond more equably to a teenage girl’s coltishness?

Antony Sher as Lear in his opulent fur coat in  the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's exceptional enactment of the classic King Lear

Antony Sher as Lear in his opulent fur coat in  the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s exceptional enactment of the classic King Lear

Mr Doran repeatedly delivers striking tableaux. For the storm scene, Lear and his Fool are raised by tarpaulin-covered platform to so great a height they must almost be able to espy Moses on Mount Sinai. Terrific thunder, by the way.

And Graham Turner’s pale-faced Fool, Geordie-vowelled and with a little pot belly, is touchingly done.

The battle scene is conducted behind an opaque screen, lit so that we just see frozen silhouettes of the soldiers. Not that we are robbed of the clash of metal blades: the sword fight between Edmund and Edgar is properly aggressive.

The play’s notorious eye-gouging moment occurs in another glass box, this time lit by strip bulbs, the blood spurting against its panes. When this happened, one of my brother critics nearby emitted a little whimper. 

The staging can therefore be adjudged a success, even though the line, ‘Out, vile jelly!’, was lost amid poor Gloucester’s grunting and the audience’s gasps of horror.

This is a thorough, competent, thoughtful, multi-layered Lear. It does not take sides. The king’s bibulous, impertinent soldiers quite deserve to be chucked out by Goneril (Nia Gwynne). 

Kelly Williams’s Regan may cackle during the eye-gouging but the older sisters are not caricatured as oversexed vipers, as can happen. The presence of Antony Byrne as the Earl of Kent and David Troughton as Gloucester provide essential ballast to the mid-order batting.

The direction emphasises the generational eclipse as the old king is edged out by time and his offspring.

 Two globes represent Sun and Moon, complete with a shadow, and Mr Doran toys with a black and white theme, both in the costumes and the lighting.

The players give a resounding performance in Stratford's adaption of the classic play

The players give a resounding performance in Stratford’s adaption of the classic play

I wondered if there was also something of this in the casting. Both Cordelia (Natalie Simpson) and Edmund (the exciting Paapa Essiedu, who needs to rein in the drollery by ten per cent) are played by black actors, while their stage parents are white.

But any thematic stuff fades as the plot takes grip. Sir Antony’s performance has the grandeur you would expect of a theatrical knight aged 67. He does not carry Cordelia’s corpse at the end, alas, but you do feel most steps of his old king’s struggle on ‘the rack of this rough world’.

If it falls short of greatness that may be a consequence of the Sher voice, insistent but little varying in tone or pace. You could never call his delivery rich or fruity.

When raised to a shout, it acquires a Dalek’s rattle. ‘Who stirs? Call Burgundy!’ could almost be: ‘Exterminate, exterminate!’