King Lear @ The Barbican Centre

Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

For many actors Lear is the ultimate role, hence the proliferation of productions that appear every year. In 2016 alone we’ve had Timothy West, Don Warrington and Michael Pennington all pop up in the role and Glenda Jackson is currently giving us a female perspective over at the Old Vic. RSC stalwart Antony Sher’s take on the role has been something we’ve been waiting a few years for… so how does he do?
Despite his small stature Sher makes for an imposing monarch, his huge fur coat giving him the dimensions of a prowling bear. It’s an initial image that makes his later appearances in his undergarments, crowned with vines, all the more pitiful by comparison. Sher’s Lear is a bellowing beast of a man, increasingly unsure of his decision when rage abates and desperate for some show of kindness from his children. It’s a poignant performance and no less than we’d expect from one of our leading Shakespearean performers.
For all that though Sher is overshadowed by the electric presence of Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund. Prone to lurking in the shadows and with a marvellously mocking tone, Essiedu’s complete disregard for the weight of the verse makes it sound incredibly fresh – a gift that, even in this impressive cast, makes him stand out.

Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC
Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

Elsewhere David Troughton’s Gloucester and Antony Byrne as Kent both give us fine characterisations while Oliver Johnstone’s Edgar suggests again that he is a young man with an exciting career ahead of him.
The same is true of Natalie Simpson’s beautifully realised Cordelia, maintaining the poise of a princess even as her world collapses around her. Simpson radiates warmth and her relationship with Sher’s Lear feels incredibly real!
Sadly the same can’t be said for Nia Gwynne’s gurning Goneril who paces the stage, swishing her skirts behind her and permanently grimacing as if she’s trodden in something nasty and can’t get rid of the smell. Despite his best efforts Graham Turner struggles, as so many do, to make the Fool work as a character – he isn’t funny and he isn’t sincere, instead giving us a jester who seems strangely ambivalent about the king’s eroding wit.
Overall though Gregory Doran’s production has the grandiose scale such a melodrama deserves and in the endthe emotional wallop of the final scene, even after so many productions, packs a hefty punch!

4 star



At the Barbican Centre until December 23rd.


Matt has been writing on all manner of subjects for over 15 years. He has written for a number of music magazines, made appearances on BBC Introducing and regularly contributed to local newspapers. These days he mostly writes about theatre, but also enjoys covering sport, especially rugby.

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