Mad monarch is a slow-burner

Two outstanding productions of King Lear in the space of a few months seems more than one's fair ration. First there was Richard Eyre's production for the National Theatre, with Ian Holm; now we have Peter Hall's at the Old Vic, with Alan Howard.

Howard's Lear is a man in late middle age, with straggling hair and a short beard. The initial impression he makes is that of a depressive, looking for love rather than flattery, trying not very successfully to keep his sourness under control. You feel - at least, I felt - that he is rather what Shakespeare himself would have been like, if he had let the mood of his darker plays get on top of him. The subsequent performance is less intense than Ian Holm's, but it has slow-burning cumulative power. The curses, not loud but deep, are particularly well-handled; so are the moments of bewilderment. And if Howard's vocal virtuosity is sometimes indulged in a little too readily, it is a price worth paying for the general strangth of his delivery.

The production is notable for clarity and for Hall's usual attention to verse-speaking. It is also mercifully unburdened by an artificially imposed "concept". True, there are one or two regrettable stunts*, such as having Lear crawl across the stage to gloat over the corpses of Goneril and Regan. But for the most part Hall is content to follow the text where it leads.

Among a highly capable supporting cast, a few performances deserve to be singled out. Jenny Quayle is a brilliant Regan: her soft smiles and melting looks make the eventual revelation of knavery's plain face all the more frightening. Andrew Woodall is an energetic Edmund, Stephen Noonan an usually creepy Oswald. On the virtuous side of the fence, David Yelland gives Kent the weight he deserves, Greg Hicks's Edgar - in Tom o'Bedlam mode - looks like something out of Blake, and Denis Quilley makes a fine Gloucester. His sense of outrage at the thought that Regan and Cornwall are supposed to be his guests is especially memorable.

John Gross

Sunday Telegraph, 28.9.97

*... there's a fine moment at the play's end when he growls like a wild animal over Goneril and Regan's bodies ....... (Brian Logan, Time Out, 1.10.97)


Playing Shakespeare/King Lear