Plain, finely spoken Lear

At the Old Vic, Peter Hall's staging of King Lear is as plain and straight as could be. He has imposed absolutely nothing on the text or the action. The stage is all but bare throughout, though the backdrop splits from time to time to reveal mists, shrubs or barren trees. The style of playing is generally temperate, granted some decorous howls towards the end. Body-language is restrained; the actors mostly stand and deliver (there is nowhere to sit).

Shakespeare's words are left to do all the work, and they are spoken with rare, exemplary clarity. From Alan Howard's King one might have expected baroque vocal effects, but no: he is eloquent and quietly intense, never extravagant. His Lear declines inexorably and touchingly into baffled senility.

Hall has been sparing even with reading motives into the characters. The story is simply presented as it happens. Goneril and Regan (Anna Cartaret and Jenny Quayle) are lively sophisticates, and their bright eyes sparkle; nothing prepares us for the monstrous things they get up to later.

Lear himself is not very surprised by Cordelia's guarded declaration of daughterly love in the first scene, nor very angry when he cuts her off - though then he pronounces his curse upon her with sudden scathing ferocity. Later, his ruminations on mortality and lechery are more gloating than disgusted. Victoria Hamilton's Cordelia, small and conveniently portable, is a sensitive ingénue, no more, no less: the horrid rope-marks round the neck of her corpse are more affecting than anything she does when alive.

Michael Gardiner plays Cornwall as a glowering brute from the start. We are not surprised at what he gets up to; indeed, a knowing chuckle ran round the audience as he gouged out Gloucester's second eye - something I do not remember from any other performance.

Stephen Noonan's Oswald is impeccably slimy. As for Andrew Woodall's modern wide-boy Edmund, he is on the most affectionate terms with his father Gloucester from the start; his "bastards" speech is more like a cheerful grumble than a bitter outpouring.

For once the "good" characters carry greater weight than the heavies. Peter Blythe's decent, increasingly distraught Albany, Denis Quilley's stately Gloucester and David Yelland's youthful Kent are all solid creations (though so relentlessly well-spoken as to distance us a bit). Alan Dobie's sharp, agile Fool belies his years. Best of all, Greg Hicks gives us a living, breathing Edgar who communicates painful feeling in every line and gesture.

Otherwise this is not a particularly moving Lear. But it is honest, and well-balanced, and outstandingly lucid; the text glows.

David Murray

Financial Times, 26.9.97


Playing Shakespeare/King Lear