King Lear

Once generally regarded as unactable, King Lear has now become almost ubiquitous. After an outstanding intimate Lear at the Cottesloe, and an eccentric female Lear, we now have Peter Hall's production at the Old Vic, the culmination of his brilliantly successful attempt at mounting a genuine repertory season with an excellent permanent ensemble, an enterprise which, alas, now, it seems, is doomed by the withdrawal of his Canadian theatre owners and sponsors.

How is the present popularity of this difficult and dark play to be explained? Do we have more outstanding actors than previous generations? Hardly. Is the theme of the play more relevant today than previously? Surely not - conflicts between parents and children have always been at the forefront of humanity's concerns.

Cordelia and Lear

I believe the answer lies largely in the increased ability of directors to use a fast-moving, truly 'epic' style that relies on the verse and the strong story-line rather than scenery and spectacular effects. The capability of modern sound-systems to conjure up a truly convincing storm also helps.

Thus Richard Eyre's recent production with Ian Holm, and Peter Hall's here with Alan Howard, have that in common: the story is told with such verve and efficiency that suspense never falters and the three-and-a-half hours pass with not the slightest hint of boredom.

Another aspect the two versions share is the concept of Lear's Fool as an old man: in fact, a kind of burlesque parody of the senescent king. Alan Dobie who takes the part here adds considerable skills in juggling and a repertoire of comic gags, which makes him appear as a more professional clown than Michael Bryant's melancholy figure at the Cottesloe.

But the main contrast lies in the king himself: if Ian Holm is a compact little fighting cock of a man, Howard is more heroic, more the arrogant aristocrat. He speaks the verse, in his mellifluous tenurial voice with the utmost clarity, bringing out the full impact of the poetry. A very fine performance - the finer for the fact that having seen him as Vladimir in Waiting for Godot in the same season adds fascinating cross-references between these two plays on the vanity of human existence.

The general level of acting is very high. Peter Hall's ensemble is a group of real star actors - Denis Quilley's Gloucester shows this formidable performer at the height of his versatile craft, Greg Hicks is a brilliant Poor Tom (another cross-reference to his Lucky in Godot) and heroic in his true persona as Edgar, while Andrew Woodall is an attractively repulsive bastard brother. David Yelland's Kent is suitably down-to-earth and loyal. Anna Cartaret (Goneril) and Jenny Quayle (Regan) lend the wicked daughters pride, ambition and malicious sexiness of the highest order. In contrast Victoria Hamilton's Cordelia must needs appear somewhat pallid, simply because she has less to say.

John Gunter's all-purpose set for the whole season - a blue box - is here most ingeniously modified, with the back wall split open in ragged lines to create the effect of lightning, and opening wider at times to show images of landscapes, rather on the lines of Fuchs' famous Reliefbuhne or Copeau's Theatre de l'Oeuvre, earlier attempts to adapt scenery to fast-flowing narrative drama.

The text is practically uncut and Peter Hall has clarified it most effectively - for example by briefly suggesting, through a mounting cacophony, the battle in which Cordelia is defeated and Lear captured. There are many such simple and imaginative touches in the production - making it, among many great ones - one of the clearest and most moving Lears I, for one, can remember.

Martin Esslin

Plays International, November 1997


Playing Shakespeare/King Lear