Your plays or mine?

..... as Edinburgh fades into the distance, three heavy-weight openings land with a resounding thud, to pronounce loudly and clearly that London is back in business: Shaw's Heartbreak House at the Almeida; Arnold Wesker's rarely revived Chips with Everything at the National; and King Lear with Alan Howard at the Old Vic. All three open this week.

Lear we go again

It would hardly take the Six Degrees of Separation by which even the most remote of strangers are supposed to be connected to create numerous links between these productions. The National and Peter Hall's Company have already been mentioned in the same news story lately, with the announcement that the Canadian owners, Ed Mirvish and his son David, have decided to sell the Old Vic, leaving Hall's company and possibly the National Theatre Studio, which has been living rent-free in Mirvish property next door, without a home. As Hall worries about being thrown on to the street, he is also rehearsing King Lear, the third production this year of a play that the Shakespearian scholar AC Bradley once proclaimed was far better read than seen. Inevitably, there will be comparisons; although probably not with Kathryn Hunter, who bravely played the old man at the Young Vic. Ian Holm's performance in Richard Eyre's intense production in the Cottesloe will be hard to match for the path Holm traces from bullish authoritarianism to an acknowledgment of his flawed humanity as, naked, he embraces Poor Tom.

King Lear

Holm and Howard could not be more different physically: Holm is short and stocky; Howard long and languid. Both actors are products of Hall's RSC, when actors were prepared to commit themselves to a company over a long period and to the discovery of how best Shakespeare should be played. Howard has been ripening towards the role of Lear for a while. The idea first arose when he and Hall worked together on The Oedipus Plays at the National with the actor as the suffering, imperious Oedipus. Hall then went on to direct Waiting for Godot with Howard as Vladimir, one of the big hits at the Old Vic, which should get to Broadway in January. It will be surprising if there is not some leakage of Godot into Lear, given that Howard has been rehearsing one and performing the other, an experience he describes as 'interesting', although 'gruelling' would surely be more appropriate.

He is an actor with an exceptional command over language, even if the delivery is sometimes too mannered for modern tastes. Concentrating on rehearsals regardless of the real-life dramas around him, Howard has become fascinated by what he describes as the play's 'slippage'. 'I mean,' he says, 'that the meaning slips all over the place. One person says one thing and someone else says something completely different about an event that is alleged to have taken place. So who is one to believe? Things are never quite as they ought to be.' This, he believes, will be a focal point of the production. He is not planning to take his clothes off and Denis Quilley is emphatically playing Gloucester, not Regan.


Jane Edwardes

Extract from Time Out, 3-10th September, 1997


Playing Shakespeare/King Lear