King Lear has probably never been compared with The Phantom of the Opera, but the opening of David Farr’s striking Royal Shakespeare Company production does feel like a takeoff of the famed Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. During the first few minutes of Phantom, which begins with a short flashback, a giant chandelier is unveiled behind a drape and relit. Here, Farr begins the play with the character of Edgar removing a drape covering King Lear’s throne, after which a chandelier becomes lit and the play formally begins.
But whereas Phantom conjures the world of an upscale opera house, this Lear is set in and around a rundown warehouse where the windows are broken and the lights never stop flickering. The setting resembles a post-apocalyptic universe not unlike that of a Beckett play. Under a harsh lighting scheme and a torrent of fog, the cast wears a strange mix of World War I uniforms and dirty clothing from far earlier in time.
As Lear, Greg Hicks convincingly emphasizes how the character mentally and emotionally breaks piece by piece. He begins with an extravagant personality that includes a crazy streak. He’s even wearing a fur coat upon entrance. But when his daughters Regan and Goneril are unexpectedly cool to his many demands, he becomes wildly shaken up, unsure of himself and desperate. His long hair soaking in the rain at the end of the first act is a strong visual effect. At the same time, perhaps because he is younger than most actors who take on the role of the aging monarch, Hicks displays a large-scale, thoroughly captivating physical presence.
Katy Stephens, who is simultaneously playing Rosalind in As You Like It, makes for a deliciously sexy and diva-like Regan.
On the other hand, Tunji Kasim looks too boyish to play the ruthless Edmund, who selfishly spreads lies about his brother and father in order to get ahead.
In a novel bit of cross-gender casting, Sophie Russell plays Lear’s fool, emphasizing the character’s sadness and great love for Lear in spite of piercing criticisms of his bad decisions.