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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

In Context: King Lear

The Royal Shakespeare Company returns to BAM Apr 7—29 with this unforgettable rendition of King Lear, starring Sir Antony Sher as the addled patriarch whose reign gives way to ruin.

Context is everything, so get even closer to the production with this curated selection of related articles and videos. After you've attended the show, let us know what you thought by posting in the comments below and on social media using #RSCKingLear.

Program Notes

King Lear (PDF)


Playing Lear (BAM blog)
Read excerpts from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries, Sher's new book about the all-encompassing process of inhabiting the character of Lear.

Behind the Scenes with the Queen of Crowns (BAM blog)
The RSC's senior milliner explains everything that goes into the creation of their crowns, from laser cutting and soldering to wig considerations and magnetized bramble twigs.

Antony Sher Conquers His Final Shakespearean Role With King Lear (
"The part of Lear is the Everest of acting. There is something completely epic about it...You do come to it feeling inadequate. It's very intimidating."

Archival Collection
The Royal Shakespeare Company at BAM (Leon Levy BAM Digital Archive)
Browse this collection in our new digital archive for photographs, production history, and ephemera from the RSC's many BAM appearances over the years.

Behind ‘King Lear’: The History Revealed (The New York Review of Books)
A look at James Shapiro's "wonderfully illuminating" The Year of Lear, published in 2015.

Watch & Listen

Royal Shakespeare Company: King Lear Synopsis (YouTube)
Assistant Director Anna Girvan recaps the story of King Lear and his daughters.

King Lear: Music and Speeches (iTunes)
Listen to music and speeches from the production.

Now your turn...

How did you enjoy the show? Likes? Dislikes? Surprises? Tell us what's on your mind in the comments below and on social media using #RSCKingLear.


  1. Lear is a tormenting blend of the majesty of kingship and the tenderness associated with disintergration. Lear moves an audience on multiple levels. No where is that clearer to me than in this production. NOTE: I was interested in Act I that we were shown the riotous behavior of Lear's minions. This is often handled much more economically. It added depth and context. Also, the mystery of what becomes of The Fool is touched upon as he is seemingly attacked by Lear's men as he is about to (famously) vanish. There is historic credibility for this event. There is plenty to see and to reflect upon in this production.

  2. Greatly admired Sher's naturalness and, at appropriate times, power, and I thought Gloucester, Kent, Edgar, and Albany very good as well. Goneril and Regan too shrill and unsubtle, obviously evil from the getgo. Admired the overall pace, hard to achieve given the ins and outs of the subplot. Agree with previous comment that the riotousness of Lear's followers was unusually well fleshed-out. Overall, very glad I went, but disliked a number of the directorial interventions: the horrible lucite box and the unnecessary relevance-flaunting un-naked wretches that kept appearing. Hated the scene in which the fool goes off with a rope. Lear's line, "And my poor fool is hanged," is one of the great throwaway lines in Western drama; Shakespeare, unlike the director, knew what to omit. (In another Lear I saw at BAM, Cornwall's men hanged the fool on stage; the intermission came next, and the body swayed there, as the audience went out for drinks. Ugh.) My biggest objection to Doran's Lear, a huge objection, was to the director's use of sound effects and music. It is VILE to put music under actors' speeches. It's like music in old movies, when the climax is approaching or when the stars kiss. "Look, look" it seems to say, "this is a significant moment, this is an important speech!" Nudge, nudge: the character is invoking the gods. If the actor can't convey that importance on his or her own, fire the actor. Anthony Sher doesn't need music under his speeches. We don't need a gong sound when Edgar says tells Edmund he's Edgar. We don't need tinkly music when Cordelia and Lear meet again; we have Shakespeare's extraordinary words.

    1. I agree with much of this analysis and re the music. the thunder and lightening in the heath scene when well and sparsely done can add but not when overwhelming the scene.

  3. I was entertained by the many comical elements of this production. The actors have a very good grasp of comic timing even though the play is very dark. This production suggests that the fool has hung himself because of great dispair over the prior events, which makes some sense. I liked the extreme energy of all the players (especially the 100 knights) the death of Lear was handled poigniently and I had to wipe away a tear. Bravo to this production!

  4. The thing that always strikes me about RSC productions, as it did this one, is that they do this kind of thing so well and make it look somehow effortless. I loved this production of Lear which brought out elements of the play that I'd overlooked before. My one gripe is with sound quality: I couldn't hear some of the softer passages up in the balcony, and I couldn't understand the actors playing Regan and Goneril much of the time. Mostly what I heard from them was a strident torrent of unintelligible syllables.

  5. I found this production to be one of the most emotionally powerful of the ten or versions of Lear that I've seen. Regarding some of the comments, where you stand depends on where you sit. To get this out of the way, we were in the first row at the Friday, April 13 performance and felt like groundlings at the Globe. From that vantage point, I thought Goneril and Regan were two of the stronger actors in the production. The vivid demonstration of the debauchery of Lear's retinue brought home for me for the first time that Goneril and Regan had some reason to be apprehensive about their father's visits and indeed about his health. This made the tension betweem the sisters and between them and their father more believable than in most productions. Not that I am attempting at all to justify their treatment of him. As for some other comments, the plexiglas in its first appearance didn't bother me too much, but the second time it was simply a distraction, and I found myself wondering if those farther away could understand Gloucster, for example. I didn't even notice the musical punctuation to the revelation of Edgar. This may be a bit condescending, but I feel there are always a lot of audience members who don't realize who Edgar - or Kent for that matter -- are when they appear disguised, and anything the director can do to make this clear is a plus.

    Sher is not my favorite Lear -- that will always be James Earl Jones I think -- but he was completely engaged and it was an exciting and clear performance and production that should please most theater goers.

  6. This wasn't the best production of Lear I've seen. I was a bit disappointed. Not sure if it was the sound production or the actors or both, but in the balcony it was difficult to hear the words the actors were speaking, either they were mumbling, or the sound quality sucked. Disappointed. Also Lear was a bit whining for my taste.

    1. Plus one on the sound quality. Biggest problem of this production for some people.

      During the intermission some folks were getting hearing aids to deal with the poor sound quality.

  7. The last word one would use to describe Sher’s rendition of the aged king would be regal. The most successful aspect of Sher’s interpretation of the role was in the fourth act, pajama clad with a laurel wreath for a crown, when he launches into his misogynist rant about the monstrous nature of the female gender.

    It is not even really a rant. It’s more of a kvetch. These are not the harsh lessons learned of a previously-revered monarch who has been forced by the cruelties of fate and circumstance to peer into the nihilist abyss of the basest existence.

    No, Sher’s diminutive, whining Lear is more petulant than enlightened, more irritated than shaken to the core, more bemused than transformed. He is also funny. The preposterous plight in which he finds himself is ridiculous -- and he knows it.

    Here struggling to be born, was the hint of the production that the RSC could have mounted in Sher’s spirit if the company were not so weighed down by an excess of respect to the Bard and by its self-reverential loyalty to its own traditions. Instead we saw a thoroughly old-fashioned, plodding production, complete with a clunking swordfight as a climax.

    Sher seemed inclined to give us a Lear as Samuel Beckett would have written it.

    Just imagine The (Black) Comedy of King Lear: Goneril and Regan would be entirely justified in running their own households in an orderly way to look after their cranky father without the complications of his entourage; the storm on the heath would be an irritating rainstorm interrupting some Mad Hatter’s tea party rather than a full-blown tempest; Gloucester would not be literally blinded -- he’d only have his spectacles removed (the cliff scene could remain as-is, being a perfect piece of Beckett avant la lettre); the play’s searing examination of the true nature of family, loyalty, aging, sanity, justice, gender, divinity and fate could be rendered with the mix of pedantry, hilarity and disproportionality that we remember from an episode of Seinfeld.

    Fat chance that we would ever get such a production from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Maybe The Wooster Group instead: perhaps they could invite Mr Sher back to New York at a later date to have him reprise his role in the absurdist surroundings that are more fitting to his dramatic stylings.

    1. I must say i am in agreement with most of what you write. And I still think it was worth seeing and supporting.

    2. Imagine what Derek Jacobi or Isn Mckellen would be like as Lear. I saw Gielgud’s production back in the 50s on black and white TV with all the greats with him. OMG there! Was a Lear!!

  8. One standout moment: when Lear tells his fool, "I shall go mad."

    I had never considered that to be a deliberate choice. Sher emphasizes 'shall' in that sentence: "I SHALL go mad." He fights it and fights it and then realizes he's fighting the tide. Rather than continue to fight, he lets go, lets madness take him. Super interesting way to interpret that. Well done.

  9. I have seen many King Lear productions and this was one of the best. The cast of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company especially the varied race members was fantastic.

  10. I've seen 4 productions of Lear in NYC in the past 10-12 years and will say that I liked this one the best. The Gonereil, Regan and Edmund were,in particular, much stronger and a bigger presence than portrayals in the prior productions that I've seen. (I thought the Sher Lear was great too, though other Lears were also good). I actually liked the minimalist staging and the big glass cube on tracks that moved in and out of the stage. The play was much better than Jennifer Vicentelli's review in the NYT suggested.

  11. Amazing acting. An unforgettable experience. I felt transported into the story and time.
    Even climbing the vertiginous steps to the Balcony and down to my seat, while struggling with fear of hight, was worth it!

  12. 4/27/18 show. Rather disappointing- first part was quite boring. Lear Cage entrance and it’s subsequent use was very preposterous. Weak Goneril, Regan and especially Cordelia.
    The big disappointment was the Fool- played very unpleasantly and annoyingly- the worst I’ve seen...
    Sher’s Lear did not have even an “inch”of kinglyness and very surprisingly seem not to have an inch of mortality too! Very unconvincing Sher!

    Edgar was nothing as a character too ...

    Liked very much the intro of the homeless shelter scene- makes so much sense in the logistical whereabouting of Lear!

    How has this production come about so disappointing?

  13. I’m glad I went as it is rare that any group have either the actors or the capacity to appriach this enormously important play which has been a favorite of mine for over 60 years.
    loved the theater and the seats were comfortable for my 6 foot 4 inch large frame. the hearing device was the best ever i assume the miked actors came through well in the general audio too. The mise-en-scene was intersting and the flow of the play was immaculate. The use of the glass booth bringing in Lear atop it in the first scene and in the heath worked well for me however it’s use in the blinding of Glocester was almost comical in its spurting blood on the clear walls. The usual approach is for the Duke to simply go at it with his back tobthe audiance with fake blood in his hand and the imagination of the audience takes it from there. Some productions have pulled off the line “Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot,” with a dropping of some pouch of red liquid and then Cornwall stamping on it which is gross and when pulled off well, it does shock and would be something the Elizabethan audiance would have loved.
    I found Edmund a bit too comically feminine and made a poor example of having dimensions as well compact and shape as true as honest madam’s issue.” why the director chose to obliterate Edmunds closing phrase to his wonderful speech “The Excelkent Foppery ofvthe world “ in which he introduces Edgar’s appearance laughing at him with the audiance as he was about to give the astrolgy of Edgars birth and stops seeing him coming and adresses this with ironical voice playing the astrologer again and singing the devil’s tune at the end “ Edgar .... And pat he comes like the catastrophe of the old comedy: my cue is villanous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o' Bedlam. O, these eclipses do
    portend these divisions! fa, sol, la, mi.”

    playing Edmund as a black man was a kind of cliche problem for me especially as diminuitive as he was in comparison to Edgar who was played so well and a fine physical specimen. I need to be totalky seduced by Edmund and was not at all in this performance.
    Lear was sadly comical from beginning to end never obtaining the sense of power from the very beginning which is neded sorrly to have his fall to madness and powerlessness have impact. . He was stiff and spoke so slowly that i thought perhaps he did this for fear American audiances have trouble understanding Shakespeare’s language ( actually Sir Henry Neville’s language, as the brilliant book by John Casson et all demonstrate so brilliantly as to solving the riddle of the real Shakespeare.) Meanwhile, of all the characters in the play, Lear is the most direct and his speeches need no translation . Again having Cordelia be a powerful Black woman was just too much though i appreciate the distribution of parts in some just manner. Why not have the whole cast of main characters be black and the servants and poor folk be white? Sadly this problem of distributing acting jobs into most playsxwhich are identified as White plays is part of our corrupt culture throughout history.
    In the opening court seen, the two sisters obvious intent to appear to be stumbling to find compliments was ill chosen. That is their moment to have you see them as they are: haughty aristocrats happy to use their abilities in going for the biggest piece of the pie. Their gushing then is the more contrast to Cordelia when she speaks. And She should speak less stridently as she is in no need of beating her sisters with her volume. Quiely yet firmly said is far more powerful and adds to the shock value as Lear reacts in disbelief with his volume cresting the contrast pressing for her to change .
    The audiance was encouraged to laugh in some of the least comical moments which again was indicative ofcthe miscalculations of yhe director.
    Still with all these criticisms, I would tecommend people to see and support the effort. We need more O this. Ever ever ever ever ever.

  14. I was so looking forward to this show. My experience was disappointing, however, because of the unprofessional ushers. One of them was standing right near me, making loud huffing noises and constantly rustling his clothing. Then his cell phone went off! There was a steady stream of latecomers allowed in even though there was no break in the performance. Then, a couple of guests arrived late and there was some confusion about their seats: it seemed someone was sitting in their seats. Instead of talking about this with them by stepping out of the theater, two ushers had a full-on conversation about it in the theater as the play was going on! Later, the usher was leaning against the wall and banging on a metal pipe. I am appalled at the lack of professionalism.

  15. Thank you for having this production of Lear. It's the first time I've seen Lear on the stage (have read it and seen a movie or TV version) and I liked it immensely. Sher was brilliant as Lear: majestic and then very human. For the first time I could understand why Lear went mad. A beautiful performance. I cried at the end when Lear agonizes over his dead daughter: truthfully and movingly done. I also thought the performances of the Fool, Edgar, Gloucester , Kent and Edmund were excellent. The daughters were not interesting. And Cordelia was dreadfully weak. I didn't believe her for a second. Part of this is probably due to Shakespeare. Essentially, the daughters tell you the plot; their individual humanity is difficult to find.

    I, too, sitting in the balcony, often had trouble understanding Goneril and Regan, but unlike some others, I loved the sound: the music, the effects. And I loved the set.

    One caveat about the theater: In the second part, the ushers allowed two people sitting in the middle of my row (C - middle section in the balcony) to enter at least 5 minutes into the action. They simpered "Sorry," as they edged in but it was really distracting and disturbing. I hope the ushers will be "re-trained" and it won't happen again.


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