This has been the year of Lear. It began with Kathryn Hunter pottering pluckily but unrewardingly among the foothills of this actor's Everest, the first - and I trust the last - British woman ever to play the tormented king.
Then came Ian Holm's triumph at the National. It was a performance, and a production, that insisted that this was a domestic as well as a cosmic tragedy. Though Holm sometimes lacked kingly grandeur, he searched deep into the magnificent heart of the play. Those who saw him will never forget when he stripped naked in the storm, or his inconsolable grief at the end.
Alan Howard now has the daunting task of following one of the most acclaimed Lears in recent memory, and at first I feared he was going to blow it.
Howard has an unusual problem as an actor - his technique and his voice are almost too good. He can pilot his way through yards of blank verse with extraordinary skill and clarity, and he can range, apparently effortlessly, from hooting musicality to great growls of anger and despair. The effect, however, is outmoded. Howard puts one in mind of the old-style actor-laddie, giving a demonstration of the voice beautiful, and these days we value racked sincerity above polished expertise.
Peter Hall's production is initially off-putting. A cavalier by temperament, he is a roundhead when it comes to Shakespeare, insisting on exemplary verse-speaking and a complete absence of gimmickry and spin. Watching the opening scene, with the characters dressed in formal Jacobean costume, all velvet, silk and immaculate ruffs, one gets the worrying impression that this is going to be a bland example of 'masterpiece theatre', scrupulously traditional and dull.
It doesn't turn out like that. For a start it is a real pleasure to hear the verse spoken so well. This is also a production that combines an exceptionally fleet pace (Hall uses the shorter, Folio version) with exemplary clarity. I have never been more aware of the play's architecture, both in the grand design and the detail, the intricate patterning not just of scenes but recurring vocal motifs such as 'nothing', which punctuates the whole play like like a terrifying void.
Hall has gathered a superb company around him, and the ensemble playing at the Old Vic grows ever more impressive. There are particularly rich rewards in seeing some of the same actors from Godot, because there are unmistakeable echoes between the two plays. It's impossible to watch Denis Quilley's deeply moving, humane performance as the blinded Gloucester, for instance, without remembering him as the blind Pozzo.
But the comparison reminds us of just how remarkable Shakespeare is. Beckett offers the most facile pessimism. Lear, while examining mankind at its most lost and barbarous, salvages something from the wreck. There may be no answer to Lear's agonising question about whether there is 'any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts', but one also takes from the play the memory of Cordelia's love, Lear's redemption and the eventual triumph of the good.
Howard grows in stature and accomplishment as the evening wears on. In the thrillingly staged storm sequence he beautifully shows self-pity turning into human sympathy, as well as poignantly capturing the terror of madness. The scene on Dover beach, with its quicksilver mood-swings, is virtuosic, his recognition of Gloucester deeply affecting, while the broken simplicity of his reconciliation with Cordelia (a performance of glowing gentleness from Victoria Hamilton) reduced me to tears. If this is finally a very good rather than a great Lear, it's because Howard never quite suggests, as do Holm and Robert Stephens, that it has been torn from his very soul.
Greg Hicks is a superb Edgar, wild as poor Tom, warm and noble as himself, and his emotional journey seems almost as terrible as Lear's. Andrew Woodall misses the sexy glamour of evil as Edmund, but Jenny Quayle has it in spades as a horribly smiling, disconcerting Regan. David Yelland makes a wonderfully sympathetic Kent and Alan Dobie is a touchingly old and weary Fool.
This is an unashamedly old-fashioned production, but there is no mistaking its sturdy strength and integrity.
The Daily Telegraph. 26.9.97.