Review: ‘King Lear’ @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Greg Hick's as the fallen King.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘The Tragedy of King Lear’ was a mixture of theatricality and raw emotion, all of which combined to show Lear’s descent from fool to madman.

Briefly, the plot revolves around Lear giving his lands to his two daughters, Regan and Goneril, but refusing to give his favourite daughter, Cordelia, her land as she says that her love is beyond words: a notion that does not sit well with the imagery-conscious Lear. She is banished to her marriage with the King of France, but Lear soon realises his other daughters mean to overthrow him, causing his descent into madness.

Although Greg Hicks was a fantastic King Lear, I think more praise is due to Sophie Russell (the Fool), Katy Stephens (Regan) and Charles Aitken (Edgar), who were superb in their supporting roles and were major driving forces behind the performance. The Fool’s unerring dedication to Lear was one of the most heartfelt aspects of the play, reaching its climax when Lear stood in the rain and the Fool is weeping at his feet, symbolising the movement of Lear from master to the pity of fools. Equally, Regan showed the passion behind the sisters’ plans to dethrone their father, providing the motivation and weaving seamlessly amongst the other characters to manipulate and devastate them. Finally, Aitken’s performance as Edgar/Poor Tom was brilliant to watch, as he shifted between guises his devotion to his father, Gloucester, and his rise from the ashes was performed spectacularly and without losing the credulity of Edgar’s compromised position.

There were times when the play felt versed: Cordelia, in particular, spoke as if she were reciting a poem, as opposed to acting the words, leaving her more of a representative figure as opposed to a human character. Some of the minor cast members also did this, but it definitely did not detract from the impact of the play.

Greg Hicks’ performance as the troubled King was amazing. He was able to dissemble from upright King and leader to downtrodden madman convincingly, and prompted a few laughs which underlined the extent of his descent into lunacy. Clearly well-rehearsed in Shakespearean acting, Hicks was able to manipulate Lear’s language to ensure that, despite his original folly, he was abused, which was complemented perfectly by Poor Tom’s feigned madness and Kent’s unwavering dedication despite the King’s misjudgement.

The theatrical elements were absolutely brilliant. The rain upon King Lear was a perfect way to both close the first half, and show the beginning of his descent into madness, perfectly setting up the shift to instability in the second half of the performance. However, the best staging came when Gloucester’s double life was exposed, and his eyes were plucked out as punishment: despite knowing it was coming, the inference of the action was still a squeamish affair, and maintained the pace of the performance despite the potential for the gruesome act to be mis-played and appear overly-fake or over-dramatised.

‘King Lear’ ended heartbreakingly, with the death of all three sisters at each other’s hands, whether directly or indirectly, highlighting the extremity of Lear’s mistake. The stage held five bodies at the ending, each one representing something lost, whilst Edgar’s closing speech was able to show that the wounds of the previous generation were the building blocks of the new generation, complimenting the devastation with a glimmer of hope in the rebuilding of an empire. The play was beautifully crafted to show the ease of transition from foolishness to full madness, and successfully showed the depths of Lear’s journey without losing its credibility.

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