Older actors than Greg Hicks have played the eponymous king in recent years, but his age does nothing to detract from his ability to portray an elderly man of ‘fourscore and upward’. This current production is far more of an ensemble RSC piece than a vehicle for an older actor wishing to prove himself.
Whilst I have mixed feelings about the overall production, my overriding impression was of having seen one of the best King Lears in recent years. The stage set with its backdrop of dilapidated walls and windows, resembling a crumbling warehouse with fizzing, flickering lights, left me a little confused, as did the range of costumes, stretching from medieval through to World War I, but the quality of the acting more than compensated for these ambiguities.
Hicks is a versatile actor and a stalwart of the RSC over many years; it was interesting for me to see him as the tyrannical Julius Caesar and the mad King in the same week. In this current production I feel that he came across as a difficult ageing king and father, a man who needed his daughters to make public pronouncements of their feelings. They accomplished this by literally standing on soap boxes to proclaim their loves for him. It was made obvious that Cordelia (Samantha Young) was his favourite child, especially when he gently prompted her to ‘Speak again’ after her avowals of ‘Nothing’. The father who quickly flew into a rage and disclaimed ‘all my paternal care, / Propinquity and property of blood, / And as a stranger to my heart and me / Hold thee from this for ever’ was equally rash and quick tempered when crossed by Goneril (Kelly Hunter) and cursed her womb and any child she may subsequently bear. Wicked as Goneril may later turn out to be, at this point she was a creature of pathos, displaying the pain and misery she felt on listening to her father’s words. Katy Stephens’s Regan was a scheming, self-centred, cruel woman who made her strength clear from the moment she was rewarded with a third of the monarch’s kingdom, and then had it augmented with Cordelia’s third.
Tunji Kasim’s Edmund was not evil enough for my liking. Like Iago, the actor playing him needs to convey wickedness to the audience, but guile to those he is duping. However Charles Aitken’s Edgar was convincing as both the wronged son of Gloucester (Geoffrey Freshwater) and as Poor Tom, the Bedlam Beggar. Freshwater combined both arrogance and misogyny when boasting of his relationship with Edmund’s unmarried mother, but moved me to tears after the loss of his eyes, and particularly in the scene where he meets the mad king.
Darrell D’Silva’s Kent was a strong, principled and loyal courtier. A man prepared to do anything to help his king, including the willingness to follow his master to the grave. John Mackay as Albany and Clarence Smith as Cornwall were both adequate in their roles, but having seen Mackay as Cassius earlier in the week, I felt as if I was again seeing him playing a soldier acting on his beliefs.
The final scenes in the play are always the most harrowing, from Lear’s misguided belief that he and Cordelia will live out their final days together in prison, through his entrance with her dead body, and then his own demise. I always find myself echoing Kent’s question ‘Is this the promised end?’. The play is so bleak, and there are just a few men left alive. How can there be a future when the stage is littered with dead women? Perhaps the setting of this production went some way towards conveying the crumbling, dilapidated state of the royal house.
This production aligns me with Lear’s claim that he is ‘a man / More sinned against than sinning.’ He didn’t seem to deserve the treatment meted out by his elder daughters, but then again perhaps a king should know better how to treat others, but above all he should know his daughters as well as they appeared to understand his nature ‘You see how full of changes his age is.’