For all of its theatrical happenings, London rarely witnesses competing productions of the same show. Even less often does it see competing versions of Shakespeare’s weightiest tragedy, King Lear. Perhaps this is for good reason, as there is only so much madness, eye-plucking, and profound insight-ing an audience can sustain (or endure). But since the Donmar Warehouse’s Lear can only service a handful of people each evening, the RSC’s King Lear at the Roundhouse is far more accessible, given the larger size of the space. But does the RSC’s production justify its presence in the City, or does it suffer by comparison?
Director David Farr (who was responsible for the elegiac and haunting Winter’s Tale) stages the production in ancient Britain, with designs (Jon Bausor, also for Winter’s Tale) full of fur and sweeping, heavy cloaks. Or, in a World War I Britain, with soldiers in uniforms carrying rifles. Or, in a shattered and abandoned warehouse, with flickering industrial lights. Or, in all three at the same time, with some characters (e.g. Cordelia, Edgar) in ancient attire battling other characters (e.g. Edmund, Regan) in WWI regalia, all against the backdrop of shattered glass and flickering lights. Confusing? Yes. Coherent? No. The production seems to emphasize the notion of Britishness running through the text, with much weight placed on the Fool’s (Sophie Russell, permanently replacing the resigned Kathryn Hunter) prophecy after the iconic storm. But how this explains the presence of WWI soldiers mingling with the ancient Britons (why is WWI the war of choice?) is unclear. If the production had presented a march through history, as the RSC’s As You Like It does, the concept might have been believable, but as it is, it falls flat.
As for Lear (Greg Hicks), it is easy, when any large number of characters are on stage, to play “Which one of these actors is not like the other.” Greg Hicks has a distinctive acting style, quite apart from many other of the company members. Hicks always appears to be in motion, as every phrase is accompanied by a gesture, or a movement, or a tremble. His reedy, sometimes sports-announcer-like voice is also highly stylized. His Lear is (too?) young and sprightly, and distracting in his unceasing (and often unnecessary) movement, especially through the (whole) first half. The stylization prevents a sense of journey, so that Hick’s Lear seems suddenly mad, or suddenly recovered. He is more palatable as the wandering King with a crown of flowers and greenery. Though, a significant and successful directing choice has Lear standing uncomfortably close to his daughters, often gripping their faces with his hands while speaking to them, almost kissing them. His overbearing proximity implies a sordid backstory with his daughters.
Tunji Kasim as the supposedly plotting Edmund lacks a single malicious bone in his body—a fantastic asset when he is playing lover-types (as he does in The Winter’s Tale). However, he fails to convince as a murderous usurper. More interesting is Kelly Hunter’s (Goneril) intense and lustful passion for Edmund. Indeed, the production’s great strength lies in its exploration of the sisters’ relationships with one another and with their husbands. Hunter begins the play looking puritanical and repressed, and she experiences a perverse blooming as she falls for Edmund. The tension between her and Regan (a terrific Katy Stephens, in black nail polish) is palpable, and the two of them do a captivating Wicked Sisters act against Cordelia (Samantha Young). Unlike the Duke of Cornwall’s (Clarence Smith) power-couple relationship with Regan, John Mackay’s Duke of Albany is outraged by his wife’s behavior. He offers a voice of reason and compassion in his shock over Gloucester’s (Geoffrey Freshwater) treatment.
And what treatment. The Duke of Cornwall stumbles upon a drill (compliments of the WWI setting) with which he dispatches one of Gloucester’s eyes. He then reaches for a hot poker (compliments of the ancient Britain setting) to undo the other. The killing of the protesting servant (Paul Hamilton) is handled with a spray of blood across the audience. After the carnage, Smith chuckles in the background, an unsettling sound.
Except for the well-played relationships among the sister/husband characters, the RSC’s King Lear fails to make a case for itself. Its set and design add little to the understanding of the play, and the production fails to illumine the text, for all the pretense at faulty lighting.