Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in rep until 26 August
At the prospect of every fresh attempt on the summit that is King Lear, one’s heart begins to sink — the bleak, bleak vision, the convoluted subplottings of son against sibling and father, of sister against sister, the merciless length of the play. It seems only yesterday that Ian McKellen triumphed in Trevor Nunn’s Stratford staging. But here’s the RSC with a new production, this time with Greg Hicks in the title role. For him it’s the culmination of a run of major roles in which his wiry physique and nervous intensity have always been memorable. Caesar and Leontes suited him less well than Coriolanus, but it’s as Lear that he’s delivering the performance of a lifetime.
Where McKellen was mellifluously strong on the humanity and saving humour in the tyrant more sinned against than sinning, Hicks creates a more primitive, rawly powerful figure, as impressive in his rages as he is heart-wrenchingly eloquent in his descent into madness and self-knowledge. His liberties with the verse spring always from a sure dramatic instinct. Turning on Cordelia, he holds an emphatic pause between every word, ‘Better — thou — hadst — not — been — born’, then a moment later to the French king who’ll marry her for love and not inheritance, ‘ThouhastherFrance’, dismissively eliding every word. There’s always some new shade, some new emphasis to hold your attention, whether in a seemingly casual aside or in the most familiar of the great speeches: ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks’ as he braved the cataracts that here, quite literally, rain down upon his head; ‘Howl, howl, howl’, shaking every word and being shaken with them.
Suddenly re-energised by his reunion with the blinded Gloucester (the excellent Geoffrey Freshwater), he vows revenge upon Goneril and Regan’s husbands, ‘…kill, kill, kill’. Quickly surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets, he exclaims, ‘come, come, I am a King’, and with such unimpaired authority that they kneel in deference. It’s a superb moment and typical of the best of David Farr’s ground-zero direction of the play. Puzzling, though, that in this most unChristian work Farr should have nuns intoning their devotions in Goneril’s house. Kathryn Hunter’s diminutive, scuttling and ever-resourceful Fool wisely drowns them out by getting Lear’s rowdy knights to sing and dance with her. Samantha Young’s Cordelia is perhaps more a Perdita than a vengeful Queen of France, but her unsentimental honesty contrasts well with the lethal smiles of Katy Stephens’s Regan and the emotional turbulence of Kelly Hunter’s Goneril, plainly traumatised by Lear’s curse upon her fertility.
Farr and his designer Jon Bausor turn the Courtyard into a sandbagged no-man’s-land from the first world war. As Lear is nothing if not a mythopoeic fantasy, the costuming unapologetically embraces medieval furs as readily as Goneril and Regan’s Edwardian glamour. The soundscape is raspingly metallic. With the storm, the overhead lighting gantries splutter, fizzle and spark as though in imminent danger of explosion or extinction.
Personally, I have no problem with these determinedly anti-naturalistic devices. But I’m at odds with a professor of ‘biological, environmental and rural sciences’ and two colleagues who, in a weirdly wonderful article in the TLS (19 February), argue for the restoration of Lear as an ‘arable play’, Shakespeare’s ‘unrecognised Georgic’ in which madness and mayhem are the result of crop failure. No recognition here that Nature means our nature and that the landscape, pace Cordelia’s invocation of her father singing his way through an unweeded cornfield, is that of the human soul. Greg Hicks and David Farr are in business to refute the madcap professor.