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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
KING LEAR
at Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon

SAVAGERY AND SADISM
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Greg Hicks, Charles Aitken/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

The new Royal Shakespeare Theatre is rising inexorably on the banks of the River Avon – there is an awful lot of glass frontage that is giving the place the look (short-term, I hope) of a large Oxford Street department store – but the company presses on with its final season in the temporary Courtyard, and a rousing signal they send, too.
 
Doubts about the quality of Michael Boyd’s long-term ensemble are not entirely allayed, but David Farr’s production of King Lear, which is brutal, grimy and unremitting – designed by Jon Bausor, lit by Jon Clark – shows many of the actors to good advantage, notably Kelly Hunter and Katy Stephens as Goneril and Regan, Darrell D’Silva as an unusually interesting Kent, and Geoffrey Freshwater as a touching Gloucester.
 
The savagery of Gloucester’s blinding carries with it the sexual sadism that is de rigeur these days, while the storm on the heath is presaged by a lot of crashing walls and breaking glass, as though the entire structure of perfidious Albion were shaking to its foundations. And this is the point. Lear is a play that goes beyond the pale. It’s a portrait of a barbaric, medieval nation state whose apocalyptic dimension is somehow futuristic.
 
The murder in prison of innocent, good-hearted Cordelia (Samantha Young is one of the new recruits on whom the jury is still out) signals the corporate nervous breakdown that is leading to communal wipeout. All sense of decency in politics, warfare and even domestic relationships is torn apart, which is why the scene on Dover cliffs between a father who cannot see, nor recognize, his own son is so unbearably moving.
That son, the disguised Poor Tom, alter ego of Charles Aitken’s concerned and febrile Edgar, is a good example of the still tentative quality in the middle ranks of the company. Tunji Kasim is eagerly evil as the bastard Edmund, but shares the fault of not bringing the expression of character entirely into line with that of the verse. There is still much work to be done.
 
But in Greg Hicks, the RSC is making the most of its outstanding verse speaker; his voice can throb with impassioned vibrato or tighten like a drum and sound the clarion call of true tragedy, without resorting to “old laddie” theatrical effects. Hicks is a wonder of our age, a unique stage actor in the mould of Alan Howard or Ian Richardson.
 
This Lear is a perfect complement to last season’s Leontes, and it’s only to be hoped that the RSC sorts its London base out soon – the programme for the Roundhouse is not yet confirmed – and the capital can rejoice in the heroics of Hicks. The actor once played Aufidius to Ian McKellen’s Coriolanus at the National, and then made that role his own at the RSC.
He follows McKellen’s grandiose Lear (and there’s a Derek Jacobi version coming to the Donmar Warehouse later this year) with a more elemental, you might say Biblical, reading of the role. He is indeed the thing itself, the bare fork’d animal cutting loose from his own humanity and fighting to retain its vestiges, until with everything gone, he slips away.
 
Hicks isn’t always this affecting, but he has gone for broke and allowed his feelings full vent. His trial and endurance are placed in a powerful perspective by the watching Fool of Kathryn Hunter, another actor whose vocal mannerisms and physical trickery can boil over into an irritating negative; not here. She once played Lear herself (at the Leicester Haymarket), so she really does know what Hicks is going through and she makes that registration of compassionate grief all the more authentic. 
 
 


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