Glenda Jackson's must-see Lear at the Old Vic may be getting all the headlines right now, but Greg Doran's Stratford-to-London RSC transfer is the better production. I'd rank Doran's husband Antony Sher above even my two favourite Lears of recent years: Jonathan Pryce at the Almeida and Derek Jacobi at the Donmar. Also, I've never seen the play's complicated sub-plots staged with such compelling clarity. Unlike the Old Vic production's rather wearying bright white minimalism, the Barbican's massive stage and auditorium are plunged in darkness throughout most of the play and electrified by designer Niki Turner's lavish pagan sun and moon symbolism. Large metal discs, period rags and robes, and dry ice mists all add to the mysticism, as do eerie low drum rolls, chants and percussion played by musicians high up on either side of the stage.
So many images from Antony Sher's career-climaxing performance will stick in the mind for years to come, not least his grandest of entries inside a perspex box carried high on men's shoulders, dressed as a cuddly giant Womble covered in gold bling. He is cocooned head to toe in furs, a big baby whose tiny face pokes out of a huge muff. This Narnia-like Freudian metaphor isn't such a stretch as he later acts like a spoilt child and later still displays child-like vulnerability, like many people with severe dementia. Another great visual moment is when his tender, fatherly, desperate hug of Goneril (the excellently two-faced Nia Gwynne) turns suddenly into a rageful squeeze of death and our sympathies turn in an instant from him to her, troublingly. Sher also gives Lear the best death scene I've ever seen: he expires almost mid-sentence sitting upright and gazing to the heavens while clasping Cordelia (Natalie Simpson, who does well with a fairly dull and annoying character). They seem frozen in time for eternity like an Old Master painting.
But Sher's voice - ah, that voice! It is so soft and barely discernible at times that you have to lean forward in your seat to catch the delicate, somewhat comforting sounds emanating from his mouth buried under a scraggly bush of white and black hairs. He delivers his lines at a slow, rhythmic tempo, conveying that the old man's mind isn't as quick as it was. He also does an astonishing thing, making it sound whenever he chooses like he's got a fat, slippery frog in his throat. The effect is a sort of guttural trill, wobbling sound waves that enhance our emotional responses to the lines spoken. One of countless examples is at the end when he laments of Cordelia "my poor fool is hanged." Sher's remarkable trilling of the 'ha' sound in "hanged" adds enormously to the sense of helpless grief he conveys.
While Sher plays Lear's defenceless, dementia angle magnificently, he is also funny when Lear jokes around playing the fool, and chilling when he is an evil Merlin or Prospero-like wizard, summoning dark spirits and the gods to curse his "unnatural hags" daughters. In particular, he is mesmerising when holding his hand up to the skies then channeling the universe's negative energies onto Goneril to wish barren infertility upon her.
Sher's supporting actors are terrific, especially Paapa Esseidu's memorable Edmund the bastard, more like a schoolboy prankster than psychopath. David Troughton's powerful Gloucester is unkempt and seedy, and the perspex box is re-used splatteringly well during his eye-gouging scene. Oliver Johnstone's fine Edgar stumbles and crawls around wearing nothing but what look like incontinence pants when he is mad Tom. Graham Turner's Fool does the job but isn't quite as hilarious as Rhys Ifans in the Jackson/Warner production. Nia Gwynne's Goneril and Kelly Williams' Regan both display the right amount of coercive coquettishness. But Sher's masterful control of Lear's personality shifts is worth the ticket price alone. His performance oozes authority as he skilfully veers between pathos and humour, victimhood and egomania, tomfoolery and nervous breakdown, single-mindedness and absent-mindedness.