Review: Antony Sher expresses the truth of madness in a mesmerising King Lear

Antony Sher as King Lear with Graham Turner as his Fool. Picture: Ellie Kurttz
Antony Sher as King Lear with Graham Turner as his Fool. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

Peter Ormerod reviews the RSC’s King Lear, starring Sir Antony Sher, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

It is perhaps telling that Sir Antony Sher, one of our great knights of the stage, played the Fool in his first RSC appearance in this play. Because now, 34 years on, his keenly anticipated portrayal of King Lear conveys a profound understanding of the madness in what we call sanity, the nonsense in what we call sense, the sense in what we call nonsense and the sanity in what we call madness.

Gregory Doran’s production may not be groundbreaking in terms of staging or design, but it will be for many a refreshing and quite different take on the play. What can so often be a cruel, bitter, harsh spectacle is here remarkably warm. Beneath his heavy, bejewelled furs, Sher’s Lear is pathetic and impotent, presiding over a disintegrating kingdom. As he descends - or possibly ascends - into his different state of being, so he is gradually stripped of his preposterous garb, and so his heart becomes more noticeable; and the viciousness of daughters Regan (Kelly Williams) and Goneril (Nia Gwynne), who had earlier convinced Lear of their love for him, thus grows darker.

There are no histrionics in the madness of this Lear. Sher plays him as if his wildly meandering disquisitions are of a piece with reality. There are heartbreaking moments of perception, when the apparent wretchedness of his plight becomes clear to him; and his eventual reconciliation with Cordelia, the daughter he had earlier cut adrift, is deeply moving.

But this production is not all about Sher. Paapa Essiedu, who played Hamlet to luminous effect on this stage earlier this year, is once again on compelling form as a spiky, sharp, witty Edmund, a bitter plotter who has no truck with the superstitions of his time, and seeks to be master of his destiny, to savage effect.

Also outstanding is David Troughton as Gloucester, full of naive decency; his blinding is notable less for its graphic gruesomeness than for its violence to humanity.

Here is a rich, compassionate production that puts Shakespeare’s searingly truthful words centre stage. It prompts the viewer not only to reconsider the play, but to notice and challenge the confines in which we exist - be they of our bodies or of our minds.

* King Lear runs until October 15. Call 01789 403493 to book.