The greatest of Shakespeare's plays are those that have some distinctive or distinguishing feature that sets them apart from the playwright's other works: an element that makes them always open to new ways of looking at it afresh. Aside from the very evident dark bleakness of their outlooks, what King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth all have in common then is their difference. Each has its own structure and its own unique language created by Shakespeare to express each of their dark visions. As bleak as those works can get, what unites them however is the more expansive vision of humanity that arises out of their darkness.
King Lear has another more obvious structural feature that sets it apart from all of Shakespeare's plays and that is that it consists of two parallel plots. The main story is that of King Lear and his daughters, but the fully developed sub-plot of Gloucester and his sons is just as important. It's this division within the play that needs to be carefully treated for balance, emphasis and for convergence, and that seems to be the area that the RSC's artistic director Gregory Doran strives to address with the utmost attention in this 2016 production of the play at Stratford-upon-Avon.
This is the beauty of King Lear. It brings together two distinct plays, and presents you with two different ways of viewing it. In one production the emphasis on the Lear plot might predominate, with the Gloucester storyline there just to enrich it further. In another production you might find that the Gloucester plot presents a more convincing aspect that lends a little more weight, credibility and nuance to the Lear plot. You would expect then that any production will lean the emphasis or interest towards the Lear plot or the Gloucester plot, allowing one to enrich the other, but Greg Doran's production somehow manages to give equal weight to both stories in a way that potentially allows each individual viewer to see it differently. And, even more unusual, it's possible for one person to view the production entirely differently over two separate viewings.
That at least was my experience with the production when I first watched this performance in a live broadcast and subsequently revisited it here on its DVD release. Watching the live broadcast in October 2016, I got the impression that Doran had placed more emphasis on the Gloucester side of the story than on Lear's downfall, or that there was at least more of an effort to make Edmund's plotting to turn his father against his brother Edgar equal in conviction and in tragedy to Lear. And I thought that the key to the success of this lay with the superb performances of Paapa Essiedu's unapologetically villainous monologues to the audience as Edmund and to the sympathy that Oliver Johnstone evokes in the rehabilitation of the brave Edgar. What was interesting about this was that it brilliantly illustrates the transformations that occur within these characters over the course of the play, where the barriers of right and legitimacy are all stripped away and the essential humanity (and inhumanity) is revealed.
That of course is also how we also see personalities progress in the King Lear plot. Relieved of their duty to say what they believe must be duly given to their regal father, Goneril and Regan's true personalities are unleashed once they have their share of his kingdom. The value of Cordelia's truthfulness and integrity also only becomes apparent when all need for appearances is gone, and it presents a striking contrast to that of her sisters. That much is to be expected, but on first viewing, it appeared that the villainy of Goneril and Regan was given greater emphasis, overshadowing Natalie Simpson's less interesting Cordelia and Antony Sher's curiously unsympathetic Lear.
That was on a first viewing. Rewatching the exact same performance of the same production on the Blu-ray DVD release, I found that I saw both stories in an entirely different light. Antony Sher's staccato recitative in his delivery of the arrogant and authoritarian king that came across initially as rather mannered could on a second viewing be seen to follow the path of Lear's madness in a more gradual and subtle manner. His loss of his authority leads him on a journey of disappointment and barely suppressed rage at his own foolishness; a slow-burning rage that can be seen to gradually break down his disintegrating mind. Greg Doran's direction, which may also have appeared to be rather hands-off and non-committal, with minimal props and largely bare staging, does also by the same token reveal that the real qualities in King Lear are those the lie between the delivery of the text and the recipient, with minimal interference of a director.
That can only be delivered on stage through the intermediary performances of the actors, and allowing for variations of interpretation, Doran manages a consistent approach that covers the wide dynamic that is inherent within the work. The production has a good balance of young actors and older, with the experience really coming through in those all-important contrasting and complementary roles of Lear and Gloucester. You'll find that sympathy lies equally with both old men for the predicament that has afflicted them by the time they meet on the cliffs of Dover, a scene that is one of the highlights of the whole production. That's as it should be. While we see little of the disinherited Cordelia after her opening scene, her reunion in death with her father still has an impact, but the real force of Lear's actions, and his central role in the play is taken up more by the behaviour of the two other sisters Goneril and Regan.
The success of this production seems to lie in where the Gloucester and Lear stories intersect and interact, and the performances of the actors in those pivotal roles works in its favour. Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams give two of the most powerful performances in the play as Goneril and Regan, and really only show the extent of their corrupt natures when it comes to their involvement with Edmund. Paapa Essiedu's charismatic performance as Edmund (after already proving himself admirably in the same RSC season as Hamlet) provides a fascinating view of the complex motivations of the bastard son's behaviour. It's as if he is on a roll of gratification at seeing his plans wreak havoc, taking pride at the end even that he engages himself fatally with both Regan and Goneril. These moments of the play stand out more in this production, and it's fascinating to see them taken into the hands of terrific actors who can do a lot with them.
Which is not to say that there are weaknesses elsewhere, just measures of emphasis that can be taken up differently and leave the interpretation open for the viewer to assess (and even change their mind about). If there is extra weight applied to the roles of Goneril, Regan and Edmund here, it could be seen to spin out to have impact on the rest of the play and the performances. Goneril and Regan's husbands Albany and Cornwall are evidently controlled by their behaviour, but the impact is more evident in the position of Edgar, who similarly has a vital role to play in adjusting the balance of tragedy and redress, a balance that encapsulates not only the fate of King Lear, but that of all humanity.
The RSC's 2016 King Lear is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. The Blu-ray is BD50, the transfer of the live HD broadcast is 1080/60p (as opposed to the typical 24fps for a film) with an AVC encode. The BD is all-region compatible.
Filmed for live broadcast in High Definition to cinemas, the quality of the HD transfer to Blu-ray is of the same exceptionally high standard as the other releases in this growing catalogue of RSC releases. The lighting is strong in this production of a work that is usually goes for a considerably darker tone - so the clarity and detail in the image is superb. There are no evident issues whatsoever with compression artefacts, banding or aliasing.
Audio tracks are provided in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 at 48kHz/24-bit. Filmed live under theatrical conditions with no visible microphones on the person or around the stage, there are no significant issues. The dialogue is always perfectly clear.
The enclosed booklet contains an essay by James Shapiro, 'Dark Times', that focusses on the political upheaval and historical events that might have had an impact on the writing of King Lear (Shapiro goes into much more detail on the writing of this play in his book '1606'). This essay and a synopsis are provided in English, French and German, but there are only English subtitles presenting Shakespeare's original text for the performance. Subtitles are white and always clear and readable.
As with all the releases from the RSC so far, there's a full Director's Commentary provided by Greg Doran with Assistant Director Anna Girvan. They make reference to the characters, presumptions about their backgrounds and aspects of their personality and confirm that there is no strict focus or modern reinterpretation applied, preferring that the work retains its non-period specific or at least pre-Christian setting. They also note the advantages of what the camera can pick up on these live recordings. Other extra features include an interview with Antony Sher, who considers the themes of the play, and a look at the creation of the costumes for the production. There is also a Cast Gallery.
King Lear is two plays rolled into one, each with two sides of a story to tell. It's about power and violence, order and disorder, downfall and redemption; it's the about the young overthrowing the ways of the old; it's about man's capacity for humanity and inhumanity. Without placing over-emphasis on one side or another, but trusting in the text itself (and some great performances to bring them out) Greg Doran's 2016 production for the RSC rather cleverly manages to leave all options open for the viewer to see the play from one perspective or the other, or even from both perspectives. That's the benefit of being able to rewatch this production now on BD release, and I suspect further viewings will only enhance the experience of this RSC production.