Noble Lear takes us to the abyss

Every inch a king is just the phrase for trumpet-tongued Alan Howard in Peter Hall's robust, lucid and thoroughly unfancy new production in the Waterloo Road.

Courtiers in ruffs and red cloaks gather round a raised throne, with a sloping dais where Howard, a long-haired ancient of majestic hauteur, divides the map of his territories.

He kisses Goneril and Regan (Anna Cartaret and Jenny Quayle) full on the lips, suggesting at once a final farewell and a hint of irregular domesticity.

Victoria Hamilton as Cordelia trembles like a page boy, unable to heave her heart into her mouth. Cutting her off, even as it happens, strikes everyone as a terrible aberration.

Even Howard knows he has gone too far, but cannot retract the fareful sentence. And then he banishes the loyal Kent (David Yelland).

In the National Theatre revival, madness creeps in quickly on Ian Holm's stocky and blazingly energetic Lear. Howard's progress is more sedate, more self-pitying and more intoned.

'Oh, reason not the need' is a wail to bring out the goosebumps. And like so many productions since the Paul Scofield version in the early Sixties, the bleak, gruff modernity of the hovel scenes, the stoical humour with which Lear faces the end, forge an unshakeable link with the plays of Beckett.

The Old Vic's Waiting for Godot, also directed by Sir Peter, and featuring three of Lear's protagonists - Howard, Denis Quilley and Greg Hicks - is never too far away. This is a most fruitful overlapping of the repertoire.

Quilley's magnificent Gloucester is a dignified grandee whose callous blinding had an extraordinary effect on the many enthusiastic youngsters in the audience on the first night: they squealed and jeered for about ten seconds, then went completely quiet.

And Hicks's outstanding Edgar trails his maimed father to Dover Beach like a terrifying variation on his subservient Lucky in Godot.

Naked, bruised and lacerated, with splinters threaded through his skin, Edgar has taken his adopted guise of madness shockingly far. His journey to the abyss is as alarming as Gloucester's to the edge of the cliff, or Lear's to the heart of the blasted heath.

Hall and his lighting designer, Mark Henderson, have devised a superb electrical storm that Howard can override with his tremendous monotone. The battles are waged with similar simplicity, all shadows and silhouettes, as Gloucester emits a silent scream.

Only the Goneril and Regan scenes are under-explored. Andrew Woodall is an effective Edmund. Alan Dobie is brilliantly successful as the Fool, an old familiar whose coxcomb and juggling magically make sense of the most inpenetrable quips.

This may not be the greatest of Lears because Howard finally demonstrates his condition more than he undergoes it. Unlike Robert Stephens or Ian Holm, he does not break your heart.

But you will not hear the role more sonorously spoken, nor see it more nobly undertaken.

Michael Coveney

Daily Mail, 26.9.97


Playing Shakespeare/King Lear