I haven’t written a review of a theatre production since my A level Theatre Studies exam – this is taking me back to a lot of stressful hours pouring over minute set details!!
So this week me and my mum took a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon to see the previews of Artistic Director Gregory Doran’s new production of King Lear. This was a production that before this year I knew nothing about, which is unusual for me! King Lear is the story of an ageing King who decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, depending on which one can prove that they love him most. A controversial outcome leads to the kingdom being plunged into chaos as Lear begins to come to terms with betrayal and loss of his power and other characters face divided loyalties as the old king descends into madness.
This is purely my view on the production not a professional review – and there way be plot spoilers along the way – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!
(Just a quick disclaimer) As this was just a preview performance, professional photos have not been released and for copyright reasons I can’t feature any RSC photos here. Any pictures I have included in this post are my own property or photographs from the university production that I featured in this year (more on that in a moment!)
I was really excited to see this for a number of reasons. The first, I am unashamed to admit to, is that over the years of being dragged to the theatre by my enthusiastic mother, I am a bit of a Shakespeare nerd! In April it was the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death so there have been events ongoing throughout the year to celebrate and commemorate. One of these events is that the Company is attempting to perform every single one of the Shakespeare plays within six years. So far, since the scheme began, I’ve managed to see all but one of the productions so far through the scheme ‘RSC KEY’ which gives 16-25 year olds a chance to see a production for £5! Alongside this, I managed to pay £12 for this preview performance as it was ‘Restricted View’ (part of the stage would be obscured by the RST pillars). However when I took my seat I found that I had a completely clear view of the central action on the stage head on. This was the best seat I’ve ever had, pillar or not!
Another reason I was excited was because I was part of a production of King Lear at University this year. I initially had no idea about the plot but had enjoyed being a part of the previous semester’s production (Much Ado about Nothing) so thought I had nothing to lose by auditioning. I managed to secure the part of of one of Lear’s daughters, Regan. This was the biggest role I’d ever played and was really excited to see how a professional actor interpreted the character.
When we entered the theatre we were immediately faced with the preset which featured several actors wrapped in blankets facing the back of the stage and a simple black stone backdrop. This utilised the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s traditional thrust staging and created an immediate sense of poverty and dark mystery. The simplicity of this was in direct contrast with the first scene of the play of Lear’s extravagant entrance where he was carried on by four slaves on a golden throne enclosed in a glass box.
These two scenes emphasized one of the main themes of the play of power, class and wealth within the play. This was done through proxemics and levels such as Lear addressing his subjects from above and also a contrast through costumes. The actors wore simplistic costumes mainly in black or white. The members of the nobility such as Lear’s two daughters Goneril and Regan wore black gowns with golden embroidery on their cloaks, whereas his youngest daughter Cordelia wore a white gown, symbolizing to the audience the contrast between good and evil. As the performance continues, the characters fall into two camps; supporters of Lear and supporters of his daughters. This is highlighted as Lear descends into madness, appearing in less clothing each time he appears, eventually leaving him in only a white nightgown.
Another key theme is the play is the importance of nature which was illustrated through a number of elements such as staging, lighting and sound. One scene in particular which demonstrated this powerfully featured Lear and his fool in the midst of a storm on a rising platform with cloth backdrop which moved demonstrating the wind. The use of special effects such as flashing lights and crashing noises added to the atmospherics – however I found I was anxious for the scene to end because I found it too powerful, yet it was incredibly effective. Lear often reaches to the skies at points in the performance, calling on the elements, and pathetic fallacy is notable through numerous storms referred to by the characters.
When I first heard of this production around this time last year, the only advertised detail was that the great Sir Anthony Sher would be taking on the lead role. I had previously seen Sher as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One a few years ago in Stratford and was naturally in awe. The role of King Lear is one of the most difficult Shakespearean roles to portray: for a male actor it is on par with Hamlet and Macbeth. With his trademark throaty voice and undeniable stage presence, Sher certainly rose the the challenge of this role and, even though these were only previews, I know he and the rest of the cast will become even better as the run progresses!
So now the other characters, i’ll start with Lear’s three daughters. In our production, the directors decided that several roles would be gender neutral based on casting, hence one of Lear’s daughters, Goneril, was played by a man. Because of this in our cutting of the script, several story lines had to be cut such as the love triangle between the two sisters and Edmund and Lear’s curse of infertility that he lays on Goneril. In the RSC production, Nia Gwynne’s portrayal of Goneril made much more sense as to why she ultimately turns against her father. Between the two, Sher and Gwynne create and uncomfortable pairing to watch and it can be difficult to empathise with either character at different points.
As for his other two daughters, Natalie Simpson (who recently played a sublime Ophelia in Hamlet) takes on the role of Cordelia and shows her strength of character and leaves her mark despite very limited time on stage. Whereas Kelly Williams’ interpretation of Regan make her the most dangerous and manipulative of the three sisters. As previously said I was most interested in this role and I was very proud that I had read the tone of the character correctly. Williams is terrifying through the way she manipulates the men through her sickly sweetness and no nonsense attitude.
Moving onto the male characters, I’d previously seen Paapa Essiedu in the title role of the RSC’s production of Hamlet and the critics reviews had outlined him as one to watch for the future. In King Lear he takes on the role of The Duke of Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund and controls the majority of the chaos through manipulation and lies. Alongside the actor who plays his legitimate brother Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) who portrays an exceptional representation of the madness of ‘Poor Tom’, these two are certainly future stars in the Shakespearean acting world.
There were no weak links in this cast; the performances from all were incredibly strong. Other notable performances came from David Troughton as The Duke of Gloucester, comedy from Byron Mondahl’s Oswald and Graham Turner’s Fool and Antony Byrne as the banished Kent. This is one of the strongest casts I’ve seen at the RSC for a long time!
Overall, this was a fantastic performance and I can’t wait to read the critics reviews after press night and to see how the company and production evolve over the run. As for me, there a live broadcast of King Lear to cinemas on the 12th October. I might have to consider buying a ticket!
What do you think of this post? Have you seen anything from the RSC or any theatre productions recently? Let me know your feedback in the comments below.