Do we need companies? Peter Hall passionately believes we do. In a programme article for his Old Vic King Lear he pleads for more permanent troupes. But the real case is made on stage by his strikingly lucid, fast-moving production which offers living proof of the practical benefits of ensemble.
One moment sums it up to perfection. In the famous scene on Dover heath Gloucester's mock-suicide is tragedy transmuted into farce. Other productions, such as Peter Brook's, have pointed up the Beckettian parallels. But here the fact that the blinded, spreadeagled Gloucester and the shape-changing Edgar are played by Denis Quilley and Greg Hicks, Pozzo and Lucky in this season's Godot, strengthen the reverberations. And when they are joined by Alan Howard's wander-witted Lear, Godot's Vladimir, the Shakespeare-Beckett links become uncanny.
Hall is not a conceptual director who bends plays to fit a thesis. But if a key point emerges from this highly intelligent Lear - surprisingly his first - it is the constant Beckettian co-existence of the tragic and the absurd. Lear's suffering, in particular, is counterpointed by the antic comedy of Alan Dobie's Fool: the best I have seen. Like Michael Bryant in Eyre's NT production, Dobie plays him as an old vaudevillian in a comical, conical hat. But Dobie eschews pathos to present a Fool who, even as Lear is confronting madness, is busy doing lewd phallic jokes or ball-juggling. He is also, of course, an ironic commentator on Lear's folly but what you get is a sense of the grotesque contradiction that is the hallmark of Shakespeare's play.
I wish I could be quite as rhapsodic about Alan Howard's Lear. He makes a strong initial impression. He is imperious, commanding, red-cloaked, handsome and not that old: a Lear who seems to have opted for early retirement. One superb touch, in which the discarded Cordelia hands him his crown so that he can greet France and Burgundy, also instantly establishes his awareness of his folly. But Lear is a role that demands more than good acting. It requires, though not necessarily literally, a degree of self-exposure. And although Howard uses his fine vocal resources to chart Lear's suffering and madness, it remains as yet a striking feat of impersonation rather than a piece of self-revelation.
The strength of the evening lies in the clarity of the staging, on John Gunter's all-but-bare stage, and in the ensemble. Victoria Hamilton's Cordelia beautifully mixes compassion and strength. Anna Carteret's Goneril and Jenny Quayle's Regan are clearly refugees from a world of paternal domination. And David Yelland's Kent and Peter Blythe's Albany show how decency survives in a world of disintegrating evil: one more contradiction in this gloriously senseless play.
This is the third Lear in a year and the best: the one that gets closest to the play's tragi-comic heart and that most reminds us of man's Beckettian solitude in a hostile universe.