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Rehearsal and promotional photos: Rufus Sewell, Tim Key and Paul Ritter in Art, Old Vic Theatre

Review: RSC's King Lear, Barbican Theatre and why it's better than the Old Vic's

Photo by Paul Stuart (c) RSC

The RSC's King Lear, which stars Antony Sher and is currently enjoying a season at London's Barbican Theatre, took me by surprise. Lear isn't a play I particularly like, despite repeated viewings in order to 'convert' my opinion. However, I think the RSC may have just made me a believer.

It comes hot on the heels of seeing the Old Vic’s King Lear production last month, starring Glenda Jackson, which had reinforced my bad feelings about the play. Seeing both versions in quick succession means comparisons are inevitable. Both are stripped down productions. The Old Vic has gone contemporary with a white screen, cheap plastic chairs and the cast dressed in modern street clothes (much has been made by critics of Glenda Jackson’s cardie).

The RSC opted for a vast brick wall as a backdrop and the odd prop but the royal family at the start are opulently dressed - long robes embellished with gold embroidery although with lines that had a cleaner, modern spin.

Lear wears a heavy fur coat and is carried onto the stage with his golden throne encased in a glass box, flanked by attendants carrying huge golden discs as if he floats, celestial in a higher universe. Immediately you see a King for whom appearance, status and the appropriate deference is intrinsically linked to power and rule. It sets the scene for a man who wants to have his cake and eat it. He doesn’t want the responsibility of kingship, the cares of rule but he doesn't want how he is treated or lives to change.

This production opened in the summer in Stratford, long before the American election but the way Lear protests when he isn’t treated with the respect he feels he’s due made me think of the thin-skinned, president elect Donald Trump.

It is ironic that the RSC production with its less modern setting should resonate with current political figures while the modern take in the Old Vic production felt contemporary only in look. The lack of stateliness made Glenda Jackson’s Lear less petulant and entitled and, on reflection, less understandable.

In fact one of the strengths of the RSC production is that all the key characters had clearly defined story arcs and took you on the journey with them.

Paapa Essiedu, who is one of my favourite Hamlets, plays a wonderfully tricksy Edmund switching from the appearance of genuine hurt, to feigned hurt to Machiavellian in the blink of an eye. He is a mixture of cheek, charm and danger and it is beguiling and scary to watch at the same time.

By comparison the Deborah Warner-directed production at the Old Vic chose to make the half brothers very different characters. Her Edmund was fitness freak with no redeeming features while Edgar, played by Stan-fav Harry Melling was the kind, chocolate-eating gullible brother. Oliver Johnstone is the Edgar to Paapa’s Edmund in Gregory Doran's production and he is the popular, playful legitimate son, easy going and easily duped by his brother but he is a character that proves to be more than appearances imply. He is kind and clever and yet more than capable of wielding a sword when he needs to.

Kent played by another fav, Antony Byrne, has the best transformation of any I’ve seen. Too many times the banished Kent sneaks back into Lear’s entourage in a disguise that only a short-sighted person who’s lost their glasses would fall for. Not Antony Byrne, yes his accent shifts but it is two simple physical changes that make such a difference.

Throughout the play weaves Antony Sher’s Lear. His trademark gravelly voice at times gentle, petulant and at others it has a bite that makes those around him snap into obedience - for a time a least. His ‘madness’ seems more akin to worsening dementia and as such there is a vulnerability about him that makes for an empathetic character - not something I’m used to with Lear.

By the end of what was three hours and twenty five gripping minutes (including interval) I’d laughed, cried and gasped. This is a production that feels as effortless as the Old Vic’s feels self conscious. I never thought I’d see the day but I’m giving it five stars. You can see it at the Barbican Theatre until Dec 23.

Other Lear's I've seen

Glenda Jackson at the Old Vic

Ian McKellan, New London Theatre

Derek Jacobi in Michael Grandage's production at the Donmar Warehouse

Simon Russell Beale in Sam Mendes production at the National Theatre

John Shrapnel at Bristol Tobacco Factory