Lear's cavalier division of his kingdom into three ranks with David Cameron's ill-thought referendum on EU membership as an example of catastrophic decision-making. Both moves are followed by political breakdown and a lot of stabbing in the back, not just between political factions but within their ranks. There are many kinds of blindness, and RSC Director Gregory Doran explores all of them in this breathtaking production of Shakespeare's greatest play. Of course we know what happens in King Lear, while the drama of Brexit is still only in Act One. I suspect there will be more betrayals and more dead bodies before it's over.
Most of this production's impact comes from Antony Sher's superb portrayal of Lear, who begins the play as a pagan god, wrapped in gold-buckled fleeces and framed in a gold transparent box. That Sher mesmerises as Lear in this new production for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford will hardly come as a surprise. His mental and physical decline is evident as his layers of clothing are peeled away. Sher has the knack of slowing down his delivery at key moments, weighing every word of Shakespeare's text as if it is going to be his last. When he appeals to the gods to curse Goneril and make her barren, he lifts his eyes heavenwards like a priest performing a sacrament. By the end, he is a frail figure clad in white undergarments, essentially non-violent, almost a victim of the events he has himself set in train.
Simon Russell Beale's Lear at the National Theatre in 2014, directed by Sam Mendes, was equally powerful, but very different -- a barking and violent modern dictator stripped of any sympathetic qualities. Doran keeps the production set firmly in a pre-modern pagan world, with one or two key design touches that link it to our own world. Sometimes the RSC's elaborate stage design resources can overwhelm its productions, which explains why six years ago I didn't much enjoy David Farr's version of Lear, the last time the play was performed in Stratford. Doran's version, however, is visually clear, especially in its use of Niki Turner's stage designs. Doran openly acknowledges that the glass box in which Lear first appears, and the glass box in which Gloucester is blinded, are inspired by Francis Bacon paintings. I also detected a debt to Grigory Kozintsev's famous black and white Russian film of King Lear, in which the old king, wrapped in furs, is surrounded by beggars in rags.
This production, like the Mendes one at the NT, is generous in its scale and brings dozens of badly behaved knights on stage to disrupt Goneril's household with Lear's encouragement. Nobody deserves to be sent packing quite as much as this boorish old man and his rowdy escort. In the storm scene, Sher's Lear is still defiant, appearing like a grand Old Testament prophet on a mountaintop. But by the second half of the play, as his madness takes hold, he almost begins to win our sympathy.
Sher is well backed up by experienced RSC veterans David Troughton as Gloucester, Graham Turner as the Fool (a part once played by Sher), and Antony Byrne as Kent. But the standout performances for me come from Papa Essiedu (recently a triumphant Hamlet) as Edmund and Oliver Johnstone as Edgar. Johnstone conveys in a way many actors cannot the strained artificiality of Edgar's disguise as Poor Tom, so that we never lose sight of the fact that he is Gloucester's son. Essiedu is a deliciously cynical Edmund who forges a link of complicity with the audience.
Newcomer Natalie Simpson gives a straightforward interpretation of Cordelia, one of Shakespeare's most underwritten parts, but at the preview performance I found her at times barely audible. One day I would like to see Cordelia played as an awkward stroppy teenager, whose refusal to declare her love for her father might make a lot more sense than it does in most productions of the play if it is motivated by a 'whatever' feeling of rebellion against a world that has deprived her of her mother.
Footnote: I'm not a huge fan of Stratford's Shakespeare tourist attractions, but there's a new one that is very much worth a visit. The timbered Guild Hall and grammar school in Church Street has recently been opened to visitors, and it means that anyone can now enter the room where Shakespeare learned his 'little Latin and less Greek'. To sit on a bench in the room where Shakespeare studied for the 16th century equivalent of Latin O-level and first encountered Ovid is a genuinely moving trip into the past.