This is a Lear for our age. Traditionally, it is the tale of a fine, noble king betrayed and driven to madness by two wicked daughters, an evil act captured in the king's despairing line: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."
But Sher's tetchy and vindictive Lear is never noble and rarely gets our sympathy. He is slipping into dementia right from the start. His daughters Goneril and Regan (Nia Gwynne and Kelly Williams) are facing a dilemma being acted out in a million British families today.
They are not, at first, bad people or the "unnatural hags" of the text. They come across as reasonable ladies, desperate to accommodate their ailing father but driven to distraction by his infuriating mood changes and his massive retinue of hangers-on.
Greg Doran directs the action on a bare set. The storm scene is flash-bang walloppy satisfying and the sadistic blinding of Gloucester (David Troughton) produces two gasp-inducing spurts of liquid as his eyeballs are crushed.
Troughton is simply terrific, in both diction and movement. I cannot recall a better Gloucester than this pathetic, blind figure flailing around the stage. It is a performance that tears your heart.
But the unexpected treat of the night is Paapa Essiedu, already getting rave reviews as the RSC's first black Hamlet, who plays Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son. This young man, charming the audience with every gesture and sly aside, was simply born to be on the stage.
As Antony Sher comes to the end of the list of great Shakespearean characters he chooses to depict, young Essiedu is only beginning. Who knows what gems he will produce?
King Lear is at Stratford until October 15 and is at the Barbican Theatre, London from November 10 to December 23. It will be screened at selected cinemas from October 12
By Peter Rhodes