If Glenda Jackson and Warner confound convention at the Old Vic, then it's business as usual over at the RSC with a production that plays to that company's strengths – and weaknesses. Antony Sher, the closest the RSC gets to a leading man, delivers, well, precisely the sort of stately, robust performance followers of his career – and mannerism-prone style – might expect. He enters, in Gregory Doran's production, clad in fur, accompanied by portentous drum beat and carried aloft in a glass cage – a lofty symbol of an imperial ruler more in touch with the heavens above than the earth below, and a visual reminder, too, of how far this King, a mere mortal after all, has to fall. Sher's King looks skywards, seeking divine authority as he spits broiling invective against his daughters, as though channelling not just the wrath of a father but of an entire cosmos. Yet, make no mistake: This fury is personal. There is an extraordinary moment when, as he curses Goneril, he embraces his daughter in what she at first assumes is a gesture of tough love, only for her to cry out in pain as he viciously pummels her in the stomach.
Sher brilliantly reminds the audience of Lear's blind, bolshie stupidity in these early scenes. Yet, as Doran's always exceptionally lucid production continues at somewhat too processional a pace, his performance remains metaphorically contained within that glass chariot. Rarely do you feel the might of Lear unleashed. Sher maps out Lear's chaotic descent with clarity and care but without that ravaging sense of volatility, or in the end, intolerable pain.
Stylistically, Doran's production wants to have its cake and eat it but instead ends up a bit hit and miss. Visually, Niki Turner's set moves from a paganistic pre-modernity to Beckettian avant garde, with Oliver Johnstone's excellent Poor Tom shivering on a stage barren but for a tree straight from Waiting for Godot, while Lear's ceremonial, traditional glass chariot crops up again in a new, terrible form as an ultra-modern torture chamber, its glass sides smeared red by Gloucester's eyeballs. Yet the storm scene, little more than a billowing yellow sheet, is both clumsy and underwhelming. Doran is also guilty of heavy handedness in literally depicting the poor naked wretches, who intermittently throughout the show wander about the stage, heads shrunk into tattered blankets.
Among an excellent supporting cast, David Troughton's tremendous high-voltage Gloucester stands out. But the most noteworthy performance comes from Paapa Essiedu, an acclaimed Hamlet for the RSC earlier this year and a startlingly mercurial, self-ironising but always devastatingly in control Edmund – as slippery and slinky as a snake. In a production that often behaves exactly how you'd expect, his Edmund never does. He's a rising star.