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King Lear


Royal Shakespeare Company


Sonny Lim






Esplanade Theatre



Something Come of Nothing

The RSC's production of King Lear was a production that closely paid heed to the play as Shakespeare wrote it (and indeed, probably envisioned it on stage). This was a very 'central' King Lear, and what emerged was a clear domestic drama about a "foolish, fond old man" and his three daughters. As conceived by director Trevor Nunn, the simple heart of the drama beats here on this very human scale, particularly with the very human portrayals of Goneril and Regan – plausibly vain, conniving, jealous and not always unreasonable - not at all the personifications of ingratitude and evil they can often be.

As Lear, Ian McKellen does, of course, chart the journey of the king from being a spoilt old man to one who grows to compassion and love and who finally understands the truth about human nature, but this Lear is also one that sits comfortably within the domestic drama that Nunn has framed. Within this framework, it is harder to draw out the grandeur and the larger metaphysical issues about the human condition that Shakespeare's text allows - a metaphorical storm scene in which we are struck by how much we are "like flies to wanton boys" for example, is clearly much less possible. No, what we do see in the pivotal act three is an irascible and childish old man who rushes out into an impending storm in a pique at his treatment by his daughters, who suffers at the hands of the elements and, yes, who evokes a certain amount of pity from us, such as we would most certainly feel at seeing any 80-year-old out on the heath on a stormy night by himself. Within this framework it is also impossible to see anything more in Gloucester's blinding than an act of mindless meanness by a couple of petty tyrants.

Mindful of the text, Nunn successfully delineates the central dramatic arc that sees Goneril and Regan's machinations as the flint that gradually sparks Lear's descent into madness and that drives him out into the storm (not a trivial achievement when it is not uncommon for directors to miss basic cause-and-effect arcs in a text). At the same time, Nunn never loses sight of the little felicitous comic moments which are there in the text but which could easily be brushed aside by directors focused on more high-minded dramatic purposes.

This is, of course, not the only way of doing King Lear, but a perfectly legitimate way, especially if we return to re-read the text afresh (as I did after watching the performance) and strip away the centuries of accreted commentaries about what the "larger meaning" of King Lear supposedly is.

In Trevor Nunn's conception then, although we may miss the terror and pity of a great tragedy, there is also much to admire. Among this is of course McKellen's Lear - a willful, forceful king, alive to every word of Shakespeare's text and able to find new and credible ways of delivering what are by now familiar lines. There may be more sympathetic and vulnerable Lears, but McKellen's Lear is certainly regal and never ridiculous. Equally fresh and inventive in their portrayals are Frances Barber as Goneril, Monica Dolan as Regan and Sylvester McCoy as the Fool. The rest of the cast did not deliver performances of quite the same calibre, with the major disappointments being William Gaunt, a strangely uninvolved and uninvolving Gloucester whose blinding and subsequent suffering passes for almost nothing, and Romola Garai, a Cordelia who (despite her tear-stained voice) fails to rise to her moving utterances at the end and so blunts what should have been some of the most moving moments in all Shakespeare.

Christopher Oram's set design, with its somewhat clichéd allusions to all the world being a stage, could have contributed more to the production but allowed only a large and flat playing space which afforded the actors neither nooks for intimacy nor levels for their politicking.

"McKellen's Lear is a willful, forceful king, alive to every word of Shakespeare's text and able to find new and credible ways of delivering what are by now familiar lines"


Director: Trevor Nunn

Designer: Christopher Oram

Lighting Designer: Neil Austin

Composer: Steven Edis

Sound Designer: Fergus O'Hare

Fights Director: Malcolm Ranson

Musicians: Adam Cross, Steve Walton, John Gibson, Jeff

Cast: Ian McKellen, Frances Barber, Monica Dolan,
Romola Garai, Julian Harries, Guy Williams, Ben Addis,
Peter Hinton, Jonathan Hyde, William Gaunt, Ben
Meyjes, Philip Winchester, Sylvester McCoy, John
Heffernan, Seymour Matthews, David Weston, Adam Booth,
Richard Goulding, Zoe Boyle, Russell Byrne, Melanie
Jessop, Richard Goulding, Gerald Kyd and Naomi Capron

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.