Review: ‘King Lear’ at the Barbican

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A quick google search will tell you that William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ is in the top ten most famous and well-known Shakespeare plays. The basic story line (a king attempts to divide his kingdom between his three daughters) along with the numerous deaths that inevitably occur in any tragedy of Shakespeare’s and the witty relationship between madness and cynicism, make it a relatively easy to follow and intriguing play about loyalty, politics and family relations.

Gregory Doran’s production of ‘King Lear’ is no exception in terms of the ease with which he pulls off a successful production of a relatively ‘basic’ and well-known play. Everything that makes a good production of a Shakespeare play is included in his checklist; black humour used for light relief, great spectacle and extravagant prop use (at one particularly notable point, Gloucester has his eyes gouged out and although of course one of the darker points of the play, the exaggerated use of prosthetic eyes being pulled from his head along with the extreme amounts of fake blood and his pained screaming reminds the audience that we are in fact watching an extravagant production with seemingly a very large budget) and incredible acting from the cast.

Arguably the best part about this production was Paapa Essdiu’s role as the manipulative and scheming Edmund. Having previously made his debut in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ over the summer, his performance has been praised by critics and it is easy to see why. Edmund, a pained and tortured soul, the bastard neglected child of Gloucester is a character that would be relatively easy to ignore in terms of prominence throughout the written text. His subplot alongside the overarching dominant plot of a father’s betrayal from his daughters and his decline into madness is relatively simple but extremely important in terms of its ties to family loyalty and politics and Doran emphasises this. Paapa Essidiu shone in this performance. He took a relatively basic and underdeveloped character and similarly to his Hamlet, gave him depth through his consistent comic one-liners and his underlying tone of sarcasm entwined with his cynicism over the state of his identity. Although we are never encouraged to like him due to his status as one of the many ‘villains’ of the play, the ease with which Essidiu performed a character who seemed at times, bored by the state of politics and the decaying society around him was a breath of fresh air and provided humour in a play which could easily have become politically heavy. His most notable scene when he states in a very matter of fact way ‘oh, the women fight for me’ is an example of the extent of his egotism and the light comic relief that he provided when everything else around him was in such turmoil.

Likewise, Antony Sher who has previously been known for his comic roles in Shakespeare such as his role as Falstaff in the history plays was exceptional as King Lear. A man who inevitably is doomed from the offset, placing all of his wealth into the hands of his greedy and thieving daughters, he is a prime example of bad parenting. The spectacle surrounding Sher is also remarkable and the consistent references to his status as king through the elaborate props reminds the audience that he is a flawed king whose vanity and narcissism is the reason for his downfall. When his madness triumphs, Sher’s performance steps it up a notch. He transforms from a man who loves himself more than anything else, to a man who cannot seemingly even remember his own name. The transition Sher makes from narcissistic king to a man crumbling and overwhelmed with the burden of his insanity is a transition that is both painfully comic and tragic to watch. All of his inhabitations lost, we witness a man wearing only white pajamas with flowers entwined around his head pulling apart nature and waffling nonsense. It is amusing and at the same time, catastrophic.

One of the things that I would critique about the production, however, is the unnecessary scene, which was often included in the plot. As mentioned, ‘King Lear’ has a relatively basic plot line and this is something, which I would argue has made it a success in theatres for this length of time. It is easy to follow and relatively uncomplicated. Doran, however, appears at times to see the need to add moments when as an audience we end up backtracking on everything we believe and have seen so far. These scenes appear awkward and clumsy in a production of this value. For example, at the beginning of the second act, we are informed that Edmund is apparently caught up in a love triangle between Gonneril and Regan, the two sisters that Lear has given his kingdom to. Although this is included in the original play, I did not think it was a plot line that was particularly well developed in Doran’s production. It was as if one moment they were mortal enemies before Doran turned around and announced ‘I’ve forgotten to add in this subplot! Quick let’s have them share a kiss!’. Unfortunately, this made these scenes seem uncoordinated and dragged our attention away from the overall plot, instead of having us sat there questioning what it is we just witnessed.

Overall, the positive reviews written on Doran’s ‘King Lear’ were accurate and it was worth the £12 ticket to the Barbican. The production was well acted, sophisticated and reminded the audience exactly why this play is considered one of the most famous and one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.

4-5 pugs

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