First Nighter: Gregory Doran's Sumptuous "King Lear" Production, with Antony Sher, Now on Stateside Screens

In his King Lear revival, Gregory Doran, the Royal Shakespeare Company director and artistic director, goes for the gold. That's to say, gold dominates Niki Turner's set in the early scenes. This is immediately apparent when the superb Antony Sher, playing the title role and wearing a golden robe covered with many gilded medallions, is carried in on a sedan. (This King Lear is being broadcast in stateside theaters today. For later screenings, check www.rsc.org.uk and local listings.)

It's likely that Doran took his inspirations from the notion of monarchic riches as well as from Lear's outraged "O, reason not the need" speech, in which the line "...what thou gorgeous wear'st," is aimed at his avenging daughters. The phrase implicitly suggests that when the court and courtiers are on view, gorgeous is a required production look. (Turner's costumes fill the bill.)

The effect of an entrance where Lear is literally aloft underlines the eventual arc of William Shakespeare's tragedy. A ruler, than whom no one in the kingdom is higher, is brought low through his own narcissistic foolishness.

By impulsively dividing his land between two insincerely fawning daughters, Goneril (Nia Gwynne) and Regan (Kelly Williams) and renouncing their younger sister Cordelia (Natalie Simpson) for her refusal to pay him the fealty he believes he's owed, he's shed of what he gorgeous wear'st and finds himself in one of theatrical literature's most symbolic storms. As he travels with his sarcastic, loving fool (Graham Turner), he's garbed in only a flimsy nightgown, referring to himself as a "foolish fond old man."

Shakespeare pours on the narrow outlooks of fathers in regard to their children by insinuating into his turbulent plot Lear's loyal minister, Gloucester (David Troughton), who's easily gulled by jealous, illegitimate son Edmund (Paapa Essiedu) into believing legitimate son Edgar (Oliver Johnstone) is up to something woefully nefarious.

Crosby, Stills and Nash may have warned parents to "teach your children well" after spending a few hours with Lear and Gloucester learning the lesson the hard way. That's the message Shakespeare sends at the end of five emotionally draining acts. Whereas Lear does come to his senses but only before his--and Cordelia's--tragic end, the now blinded (but seeing things as they are for the first time) Gloucester is luckier. At the finally calm(er) denouement he and Edgar have a future together.

Also note that just before Lear keens his heart-breaking end-of-play "howl howl howl" and "never never never never never" over the deceased Cordelia, Doran has the two figures carried in on a simpler sedan. The directorial choice is his subtle indication that now Lear has gained elevating wisdom.

Sher takes on Lear immediately after playing Falstaff, which is to say he's now assumed the greatest aging-man roles Shakespeare penned. He's succeeded at both. This Lear is impenetrably imperious when he first arrives and becomes an open psychic wound at the end. When he repeatedly cries "howl" and "never," he shakes the walls every bit as much as lighting designer Tim Mitchell and sound designer Jonathan Ruddick shake the walls during the terrifying third-act storm. As Lear sinks into madness, Sher infuses every weakening step along the way with his carefully thought-out but never obvious acting decisions.

He's abetted by a cast performing at his level, and that means--along with those named above--Anthony Byrne as Kent, James Clyde as Cornwall (in a chilling Gloucester's eyes-rubbed-out sequence), Clarence Smith as Albany and Byron Mondahl as Oswald.

There are any number of scholars who will insist that King Lear is Shakespeare's greatest play. (Not Hamlet, in which a child's debt to his father is unforgettably dramatized.) With this King Lear, director Doran makes an extremely persuasive argument for that top ranking.