The benefit of seeing two top-tier productions of King Lear in the space of a week – first the Old Vic’s version with Glenda Jackson, the second at the Barbican starring Antony Sher – is that all of its myriad quirks, masterstrokes and flaws come into sharp focus. Perhaps the flaws most of all.
While many Shakespeare scholars will argue that Lear – not Hamlet – is the Bard’s pre-eminent work, I find it bogged down with extraneous characters, too quick to raise and discard major plot-points (wait, Goneril and Regan are both in love with Edmund? Since when?), and prone to sag towards the end of the third act.
On the other hand, it’s a vehicle for acting prowess unlike almost any other, a punishing, riveting role considered the ultimate test of an actor’s mettle. No wonder it’s attracted names including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Ian McKellan.
Jackson’s gender-swapped Lear descended into madness with a viperous anger, lashing out at her nearest and dearest; Sher takes a different approach, his initial rage soon replaced with sadness, his speech becoming broken and ponderous, even his moments of humour tinged with melancholy at the erosion of his faculties.
This more restrained performance provides space for those around him; Paapa Essiedu’s Edmund is particularly good, delivering his lines with exceptional comic timing. If there’s a weak link, it’s Graham Turner’s Fool; his grotesque, League of Gentlemen-style high-camp never quite clicks.
Niki Turner’s set and costume design is a stylised – and stylish – take on the traditional, using a palette of fading golds, blacks and browns, not dissimilar to that seen in The Almeida’s recent Richard III.
Directorial flourishes include a fur-coated Lear being carried onto stage on a grand sedia gestatoria, which later doubles as a bloody torture chamber. Some key moments, however, feel muted; the storm scene, for instance, is less a biblical event than an average afternoon in Manchester, especially underwhelming in comparison to the Old Vic’s spectacular multi-media version.
While Jackson’s Lear will rightly live longer in the memory, this is the more assured production overall.