Sher plays final RSC role in imperfect King Lear production

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The titular role of King Lear is a great peak of acting, that few dare climb, that has become a storied part for many older, male actors.

In the excavated stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, Sir Antony Sher takes the mantle and truly makes the role his own.

Sher presents a Lear who resembles an aged wolf with plenty of teeth at the ready with a distinctive growl of voice and fur robes.

Sher does a fine job with a difficult role that requires years of training and an ability to successfully mimic the fall from sanity to madness.

As a Shakespearean maestro whose range includes roles from the fat knight Falstaff to the magician Prospero, Sher makes Lear as temperamental and reluctantly tamed as a caged beast.

The production of King Lear itself, however, could use a bit of readjusting. Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, gets plenty of mileage from the three-and-a-half-hour-long epic.

Most notably, Doran manages to bring out some of the genuine comedy that occasionally spurts from the corners of the text. Ripples of laughter make their way from the audience as the sarcasm, pettiness and outright foolishness of Lear’s court makes itself known.

The court’s comedy is a respite from the manic antics of the Fool, played here by Graham Turner, who seems to rely simply on the fact that he is a fool rather than actually trying to be funny.

The ukulele he carries is a nice touch, and the silly riddles he gets out of Lear earn a smile from the audience.

Paapa Essiedu, playing the Machiavellian Edmund, is a major standout in this oddly paced production.

He quickly conveys the sociopathic nature, manipulative language and often downright funny witticisms of Edmund with such a mastery that one could find it hard to believe this is only his second lead role for RSC — though his first was a starring role in Hamlet.

Essiedu also, miraculously, makes the audience understand why Edmund wants to undo his father’s peerage and take it for himself, defying the idea of a bastard as much as he can.

Lear’s daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, are probably presented in their most nuanced forms. Most productions of King Lear make Goneril and Regan the evil, lying sisters and Cordelia the too-good, clear-headed young woman. Doran sees things differently and helps forge a portrait of a family that is ready to get out from under the thumb of Lear.

Goneril and Regan, played by Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams, respectively, eventually give in to baser urges of a despotic sort, but their loathing and half-hearted love is completely understandable. Cordelia, played with such gravitas by Mimi Ndiweni , presents love that is more than half-hearted but suffers no fools.

Her re-entry in the second half of the work is befit of a queen, and no less.

The show’s design — that of an unremembered pagan kingdom — is an effective, gritty take on Lear’s world that makes the point of the darkness it inhabits.

The music, courtesy of Ilona Sekacz, is a thrum of voices and horns that conjure kings on ancient roads. Niki Turner’s minimalist set design, a castle and dirt ground surrounding the stage, and period costuming affords an unencumbered glance into the court of Lear. Tim Mitchell’s lights hammer the heavens and have the characters either bask in their own glory or be cast away by their darkness.

One or two design choices seem a little unusual and, frankly, somewhat pointless in the long run. A pagan eclipse, presented by a sun and moon brought in by two of Lear’s train, does not need a physical, visual representation.

The Plexiglas case within which Lear is lugged around and later used as a torture chamber suggests fascinating echoes of modernity that Doran’s world encapsulates. A shadow play of the battle between France and the remnants of Lear’s kingdom, while a wonderfully creepy image, barely lasts long enough for audiences to register. The famous rain scene is weirdly disappointing in its execution.

It is an imperfect production that seemingly relies on the fact that it is a production of King Lear, with stellar performances, but unusual choices that make little sense.

By the end of the show, one might feel a bit let down by this grandiose, terrifying revival.

Even Sher’s role seems like something of a disappointment by the end when Lear is wheeled in on a cart holding the body of his executed daughter. It feels like an interpretive tableau of a famous scene rather than the next scene to come of the story, which is a shame, because there were plenty of resources to help do much more with all that talent.