Visually the production is as startling as some of its adroit choices. In the first half of the play, Niki Turner’s scenic design presents us with a white flooring and a black back wall. In the middle of the play, when Lear goes out onto the heath at the point when he has lost his sanity, it suddenly switches to a black gravel floor and a white sky which become part of the storm. So too her costumes for the cast are all black (except for Cordelia’s wedding dress) with gold embellishments for the royals when the play begins, and then as Shakespeare’s wheel of fortune turns in the second half, more and more of the moral characters are seen in all white. In the opening court scene when Lear abdicates and divides up his kingdom between his daughters, courtiers appear carrying a large gold and a smaller black disc which placed one in front of other suggests an eclipse, symbolic of what is to happen in this tragedy.
Lear is carried onto the stage in his throne chair on top of a huge glass cube which will also reappear as the torture chamber in which his daughter Regan and her husband the Duke of Cornwall put out the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester later on. This touch is reminiscent of the violent paintings of British artist Francis Bacon. Towering over his subjects, Lear on his high vantage point suggests the unlimited power that he has always been used to as reigning monarch in the days of the divine right of kings. In the heath scene, the landscape also rightly puts Lear on a high vantage point (again the glass cube) as he curses the elements. Afterwards we see a barren wasteland with one gnarled tree, shades of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, another 20th century depiction of bleakness and hope against hope.
The interracial cast of the company becomes a social statement of its own: throughout the play the beggars and servants are played by black actors suggesting the theme of the haves and the haves nots, as well as the franchised and the disenfranchised, in medieval times as well as in our own. It is a world of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. One of the questions usually not answered in Lear productions is the difference is age between older daughters Goneril and Regan and younger daughter Cordelia. Here where Cordelia (Mimi Ndiweni) is played by a black actress the answer is clear: she is the offspring of a second marriage by Lear. The Duke of Gloucester’s sons, Edgar and Edmund, are also played by men of two different races, again setting up a rivalry between them.
Among the other questions that King Lear productions often don’t deal with are why Lear understands his daughters so little, why Goneril falls for Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester so quickly and what happens to The Fool who disappears from the last third of the play. Ranting and raving as the entitled king whose power has never been checked, Sher doesn’t listen to anyone else: when he suddenly embraces his oldest daughter Goneril, it is not only obvious that she is totally shocked but she goes stiff in his arms as if to tell “after all the trouble that you have always caused me,” although the obviously Lear notices nothing. And why has he always avoided them up until now: he wanted sons not daughters to inherit his kingdom. From the moment we meet Nia Gwynne’s Goneril and her husband the Duke of Albany (Clarence Smith) they could not be more distant: this is a marriage that has been dead for years. Halfway through the play, The Fool disappears in a scene populated by beggars as if to say he joins them and does off on his own as he is no longer needed by the king.
Sher brilliantly modulates his performances so that he appears to be losing his sanity from the very first scene, rather than as often played as a sudden event after his daughter dismisses half of his train of 100 men. Both Gwynne and Kelly Williams as the elder daughters have ramrod straight posture, suggesting they are as inflexible as their father, chips off the old block. Antony Byrne’s Earl of Kent is so ferocious as to steal most of the scenes he is in. His transformation after his banishment is so complete as to make him unrecognizable, perfectly understandable as neither Lear nor his daughters guess who he is.
David Troughton (probably the best known actor in the cast to American audiences from his roles on BBC and PBS television) makes the compassionate Earl of Gloucester the moral compass of the play. As Edmund, Gloucester’s cunning illegitimate son, Paapa Essiedu is a cool, wily customer, never showing an emotion or giving away his thoughts. Graham Turner’s Fool is sarcastic and cynical, the perfect pose for this grim, chilly world. As Oswald, Goneril’s trusty steward, Byron Mondahl makes much of this role as a loyal follower who will do and say anything to keep his mistress’ trust.
The text is remarkably clear with every word registering, making lines usually lost gain new signficance. Ironic lines such as Sher’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks” speech in the storm scene have been given new readings and feel absolutely fresh, rather than delivered as old chestnuts heard one too many times before. The battle scene (fight direction by Bret Yount) is staged as silhouettes behind a white drop cloth, making them more believable and formidable than they usually are onstage. The large number of supernumeraries as Lear’s train at the post hunt banquet scene allows us to see Goneril’s complaint against his disorderly knights. Ilona Sekacz’s original music is played live with its emphasis on regal drums and trumpets. Most suitable for this twilight world is Tim Mitchell’s lighting which makes this a kingdom seen in half-light until the tide turns and the evil characters are defeated.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest King Lear, as directed by Gregory Doran, is one that needs no explanation and no program notes. At one and the same time both medieval and contemporary, this production solves many of the questions that often go unanswered. In a glorious cap to his distinguished career, Sir Antony Sher gives a memorably luminous and unambiguous performance in the title role which should stand as a bar by which others will be measured. This is not only the perfect starting point for those unfamiliar with the play but also an excellent and notable interpretation for those who know it well.
King Lear (through April 29, 2018)
Royal Shakespeare Company
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 718-636-4100 or visit http://www.BAM.org
Running time: three hours and 25 minutes with one intermission