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Antony Sher in King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre review – ‘physically subdued’

Natalie Simpson, Antony Sher and Antony Byrne in King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Ellie Kurttz Natalie Simpson, Antony Sher and Antony Byrne in King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Three decades ago, Antony Sher was a famous Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear at Stratford – a court jester and vaudeville clown rolled into one. Sher has since progressed through the ranks to become one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s biggest draws in his own right, but he also cuts a more isolated figure. He has a way of standing apart from the company, literally above them in this case as he enters carried aloft in a box-like float.

Unlike Sher’s celebrated RSC role as Richard III, a spider-like creature bounding across the stage on crutches, his Lear is a more sedentary, contained presence: at the end of the play, he doesn’t carry Cordelia on in his arms, but is trundled onto the stage on the back of a wagon with her.

Sher’s Lear feels physically diminished throughout. It’s as if he has shrunk a bit, a grizzled figure drowning in his overflowing robe and Cossack-style hat. His air of authority, as he fatally divides up his kingdom, is continually evaporating.

As an actor, Sher is a notably authoritative figure, so this sense of dwindling powers must be deliberate. It’s a style that feels, at times, curiously old-fashioned and vocally flat and slow. Though a clear choice, it brings the pace down. Gregory Doran’s staging around him doesn’t help: there may be a striking clarity to the storytelling (a Doran hallmark) but there’s also a tendency towards the processional, with actors marching up and down a lot.

There are some striking modern touches. Staging the blinding of Gloucester inside a glass box, from where the speech has to be amplified, may unwittingly evoke the Young Vic’s current blistering and forensic production of Yerma, but it also pays off spectacularly when the eyeballs splash onto the glass and blood is smudged all over it. The storm scene, on the other hand, is underwhelming, created only with lighting, a noisy soundtrack and a large plastic sheet, but no actual rainfall.

The most piercingly moving performance, however – and this play fails if you aren’t moved by it – comes from David Troughton’s magnificent, towering Gloucester, with particularly strong support from Oliver Johnstone as Edgar and Paapa Essiedu as his bastard son Edmund. As Lear’s older daughters, Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams overplay the pantomime villainy of their roles, but Natalie Simpson cuts an appealingly vulnerable figure as Cordelia, the spurned youngest daughter.

This year has already brought us Timothy West at Bristol and Don Warrington at Manchester, and still to come is Glenda Jackson at the Old Vic. It seems King Lear is coming, like sorrows, not single spies but in battalions (to borrow a line from Claudius in Hamlet). This is a strong but not definitive addition to the line-up.

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Sher's Lear feels physically subdued but Gregory Doran's old-fashioned production eventually delivers