Bard act to follow

When Peter Hall's great experiment of combining classic and modern plays in repertory at the Old Vic comes to its premature end in December, we will find that we have lost a company of rare power.

King Lear, the last of the season's classic plays, is marked by a depth of fine performances.

The lines ring with meaning, clarity and a newly-minted freshness. Denis Quilley's patrician Gloucester is unable to believe in the villainy with which he is surrounded; David Yelland is a splendid Kent; and Alan Dobie's Fool is funny, deft and, being the same age as Lear, sure of his right to speak the unspeakable.

Greg Hicks's affecting Edgar, first seen as a man who hardly knows one end of a sword from another, somehow acquires the skill to demolish his bastard brother, Edmund (Andrew Woodall), the interim having been spent walking around the country in rags, waving a stick.

Anna Carteret (Goneril) and Jenny Quayle (Regan) build a great wall of calculated hostility to their father, their unnatural behaviour possibly springing from Lear's unnatural insistence on kissing them full on the lips.

Victoria Hamilton's troubled Cordelia sends mute signals of appeal around the court and to the audience itself, knowing she is doomed the moment she hears her father ask who loves him the most.

Amid this orchestral unity created by Peter Hall stands Alan Howard's King Lear, a stubborn despot, not particularly decrepit even in the later scenes. Comparisons are always unkind, but with Ian Holm's Lear half-a-mile away at the National, I suppose they must be made.

Howard has a narrower range than Holm and can be very actorly at times. There is power there, but also a sense of calculation as if he had studied the map and, well knowing the road ahead, can slip into the right gear for the hillier sections seconds before he reaches them.

Yet there are times when his unique gifts blaze in the darkness like the lightning flash that splits the back wall of John Gunter's set in two, to reveal, at one point, a void, at another, a Beckettian tree signalling isolation.

David Nathan

Jewish Chronicle, 3.10.97


Playing Shakespeare/King Lear