The Royal Shakespeare Company’s final production at the Roundhouse for this season, King Lear, is a mixed bag, as if it’s been put together by the nutty old coffin dodger himself.
David Farr’s production, while filled with some excellent actors, is something of a confusing mess. Fizzing electric lighting and a derelict warehouse with collapsing walls might make you think this is a futuristic Albion. Yet its characters are clothed in everything from fairytale furs and medieval gowns to Edwardian suits, First World War fatigues and modern doctors’ coats. When rifles are put away and comically large swords used instead, it feels there’s a real lack of coherence in the crew department.
The performances from the ensemble are similarly inconsistent.
As Lear, Greg Hicks shows fantastic range; his face seems to display about 18 clearly distinguishable emotions before he’s even achieved centre stage. He’s petulant, vitriolic, tyrannical. His constantly changing moods suit the play, and the seeming impossibility of dignified old age. When he cries “Let me not be mad!” to his Fool, you get the feeling that he’s referring backwards, rather than forwards; aware, already, of his earlier mistakes. In his final scenes, this fine actor brings huge pathos: for all his previous animal-like pacing, head-shaking and roaring, his repeated “Howl!” at Cordelia’s death is a beseeching, human plea to the others: feel what I’m feeling, share my grief and make it easier to bear.
Lear’s evil daughters, Regan and Goneril (Katy Stephens and Kelly Hunter), one all weepy; the other, pure steel, are brilliantly contrasted. And there are good performances too from Geoffrey Freshwater as Gloucester, and Darrell D’Silva is a likable, earthy Kent.
But then the disappointments: Tunji Kasim’s Edmund lacks the nasty charisma, ruthlessness and brattish insolence required for the role. And while Samantha Young’s Cordelia looks the part, when she complains she cannot heave her heart into her mouth, you can’t help wishing she could better heave her lines there instead; she seems to swallow her verses in the delivery.
And when the effeminate Edgar and Albany are left at the end to bury the dead, we could find little in this intense, depressing decline into madness to lift the spirits.
King Lear plays at the Roundhouse until 4 February. Tickets are £8-40. It is part of a season of RSC productions at the venue, including As You Like It and Julius Caesar. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/london for more information.
Photos by Manuel Harlan show Greg Hicks as King Lear and Geoffrey Freshwater as Gloucester