Review: King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre

“A man may see how this world goes with no eyes”

A double bill of Shakespeare is something that not even I would undertake lightly but as an opportunity to visit the newly opened Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was something I couldn’t resist: King Lear in the afternoon for the first time and a revisit of Romeo & Juliet in the evening. Typically, the old maxim about not booking shows to see particular actors came and bit me on the posterior with a depressing predictability, as the main reason for seeing this King Lear was in order to see Kathryn Hunter’s Fool, but as she unexpectedly withdrew from the ensemble at the beginning of the year, the role is now being covered by Sophie Russell.
This was only my second ever Lear, Derek Jacobi’s at the Donmar being the first and whilst I enjoyed seeing that with fresh eyes and not knowing the story, it was nice to watch this one with a little more comprehension of exactly what was going on! Though I was still a little perplexed by the mix of time periods covered in the costumes, the courtiers in classical garb but the outside world seemed to be inspired by the First World War, a mixture that was a little too haphazard for my liking. But overall, it did actually combine to quite epic effect, led by Greg Hicks’ powerful turn as Lear. I got more of a sense of a man going mad from Hicks, as opposed to the fragility, even possible onset of senility, of Jacobi’s interpretation, with his viciousness towards Goneril being particularly shocking in a way I didn’t remember so much. 
Tunji Kasim’s Edmund didn’t quite have enough gravitas for me, the charisma to convince that he could have Goneril and/or Regan or indeed the necessary malevolence but his was the only performance I had any issue with. Kelly Hunter’s poisonous Goneril and Katy Stephens’ sensuous Regan (in an amazing red dress) were both just excellent, so deliciously good that I didn’t want them to get their comeuppance. Samantha Young’s Cordelia felt like a stronger woman than in the Donmar’s production which I liked and Charles Aitken as Edgar and Geoffrey Freshwater as Gloucester were also extremely strong and moving in their scenes, and Sophie Russell did well as a quietly mournful Fool.
In order to try and not break the bank whilst still maximising theatre time whilst up in Stratford, it was decided that the £5 standing tickets in the Upper Circle would be investigated and I have to say it turned out to be not quite as torturous as feared. The platform for two people to stand in is really spacious with a rail in front and to the side to lean on, should you desire, but it is only a little bit higher than row B in front (by comparison, the row C seats to the side are much higher up) and so one is much more susceptible to people in front leaning and blocking the view, be prepared for a lit of shifting around. Also, the view has to be described as quite restricted: the section is at the end of the seating horseshoe which curves round into the stage so you’re facing the audience but the staging means that this is not an issue, indeed I think we saw more of Goneril’s face that people in the best seats, she was frequently facing us! But anything that happened at the back of the stage was out of view as was about a third of the thrust, as you can’t see what is happening directly below. It was definitely worth a fiver, but I am not sure that the seats in that section are to be recommended as you’re paying more but still for a (admittedly slightly less) restricted views.
So all in all a great experience, especially for a fiver, and it feels like a great theatre in almost every aspect: near-perfect acoustics, a great intimacy despite seating over 1,000, super-friendly ushers, efficient refreshment services and great views from several vantage points. The only little dark cloud was an unwelcome brusqueness from the box office and I could have done with somewhere to sit down in the interval but otherwise, the future looks promising for the RSC at the RST if this is anything to go by.

Running time: 3 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4
Booking until 2nd April

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