Hicks conjures up  a majestic Lear

lear top 

The Madness of King Lear: Greg Hicks as Lear makes a point  that the blinded Earl of Gloucester, Geoffrey Freshwater, will never see. Photographs: Manual Harlan

King Lear

RSC

Courtyard Theatre

 ****

LEAR stands or falls with the king and in Greg Hicks the RSC have a monarch who not only stands tall but towers over this production.

We see a king who is at first in command yet shows a shallowness as he demands flattery dressed up as love from his daughters and when his youngest and favourite, Cordelia (Samantha Young), refuses to play his game and flatter to, as we see later from her sisters, deceive, she finds herself disinherited.

 When his loyal aide the Earl of Kent (Darrell D'Silva) has the temerity to tell his king that he is wrong then he is banished for his pains. This is a king who takes agreement in the guise of advice and certainly wants no one to question his decisions.

Lear, having made his bed, then descends into madness as he is forced to lie on it before realising his tragic stupidity in the body-bag littered final scene.mid

Hicks has that ease of delivery that marks an actor in command of his craft and at one with Shakespearean verse and we watch him age and mentally disintegrate in this 3 hour 20 minute marathon. There have been suggestions that Hicks, at a mere 57 this year, is too young for the role of a monarch of 80 plus as if the world is full octogenarian thespians who could manage to remember the lines - or even the majority of them -  remember to turn up for every performance and then perform one of Shakespeare's most demanding roles brilliantly for three hours a night for a full season.

OPENING POMP

Hicks certainly does not look 80 in his opening pomp as King Lear but once his kingdom has been given to his two deceitful daughters and madness sets in his ageing is relentless and by the end, shrivelled in a wheelchair, cared for by Cordelia the daughter he disowned, he is an old, defeated man.

This is perhaps the most complex and unrelenting of Shakespeare's  tragedies.

There are two fathers, Lear and Gloucester, (Geoffrey Freshwater) betrayed by their children while  two of the  children, Samantha Young's understated Cordelia and Gloucester's son Edgar (Charles Aitken) betrayed by their siblings in an intertwined plot of lies and deception.

There is plenty of scope for confusion among the audience which is not helped by director David Farr's choice of costumes which each camp seemingly fighting different wars.  Lear and his merry band are ready for Bosworth while his daughters Goneril and Regan, played with oily disdain by Kelly Hunter and Katy Stephens, have their courts ready for the Somme while Cordelia returns prepared to defend Stalingrad.

Among them all is an underclass of civil servants - and Gloucester - who appear to have stepped from an Ibsen drama.

Whether Farr wanted us to see the play in terms of old and new orders, or to show the conflict Lear's daughters had brought to the kingdom was at least something that made the audience question even if they never found an answer.

GRIMY, CRACKED WINDOWS

The same could be said of Jon Bausor's design with the play set in a dark, dingy factory with grimy, cracked windows and flickering strip lighting with dodgy wiring. Whether this a reflection on broken Britain or a stark backdrop for the open-heart tragedy unfolding is another aspect for the audience to debate among themselves. Jon Clark's lighting was also stark reducing the set often to vertical shafts of harsh white light.

Particularly dramatic was the final moments before the interval when Lear and his fool (Kathryn Hunter) stood on a plinth on a darkened stage in a searing shaft of light and rain (pictured above right)  and as Lear's mind disintegrated before your eyes behind him the set was falling part in sympathy with panels crashing to the stage and girders slipping from the flies.a mad lear

Kathryn Hunter, as the fool, is like a cheeky monkey, scampering and bouncing around telling the king truths he would rather not hear yet showing him great affection as he ages and loses his mind. 

D'Silva's Kent, the banished noble, who disguises himself as the bluff soldier Caius where he can still serve his king for much of the play - Caius apparently coming from somewhere on the Yorkshire moors from his accent - adds weight to the king's cause while Gloucester, a braggart at the opening pays for his subsequent loyalty with his eyes at the hands of Regan's husband The Duke of Cornwall (Clarence Smith) yet achieves a nobility and humanity as he stumbles around  guided by the lunatic Old Tom, little realising it is his son Edgar. 

LOCAL NUTTER

Gloucester is a character you care about in the hands of Freshwater as you do for the bookish Edgar who is set up by his bastard brother Edmund. The disguise as the local nutter (seen left with the genuinely mad Lear)  is to avoid capture and death until the final reckoning when good clashes with evil.

And this is perhaps the problem with Tunji Kasim's Edmund. He just isn't evil or nasty enough enough. He is supposed to be a scheming, womanising Machiavellian, embittered character instead the words are all about plots and betrayal but they are delivered by a fresh faced lad who looks like he helps old ladies across the street.

As for his torrid affairs with the evil sisters, Edmund seems more seduced than seducer - rather like those teacher and pupil affairs much loved by the Sundays.

You suspect any butter in his mouth at the start would still be there, unchanged, as the audience wended their way home.

Lear is a challenge for the cast and for the audience and this production gives theatregoers plenty to think about on their way home.

Roger Clarke 

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