King Lear

This seems to be the year of King Lear's triple crown; thus far we have had Kathryn Hunter playing the role in a weird kind of reverse drag, Ian Holm at the National in Richard Eyre's stunningly close-up chamber version, and now, at the Old Vic, Peter Hall's admirable, almost operatic reminder of the ancient virtues of the tragedy when played at full tilt behind a proscenium arch as a classic version of the all-time theatrical classic. Sadly, this may well prove to be Hall's farewell production at the Vic, which now faces December closure and sale by the Mirvishes to anyone willing or able to part with £7 million for a theatre building which, happily, can be put to no other purpose.

Though there are murmurings that the beleaguered Royal Shakespeare Company could take up some kind of residence there, it is in truth unlikely that any theatrical management can meet the Mirvish price; we should, therefore, not just mourn the Hall farewell but actively try to make sure that money is raised to allow him to stay put. For what is demonstrated, not just by the new Lear but also by such other productions of his in the current season as Waste and Waiting for Godot, is that in less than nine months Hall has set up one of the great repertory companies of the world, offering a roster of stars and shows which currently challenges even the National Theatre in its prime, and certainly outstrips the RSC on its recent shaky record.

We simply cannot afford to let the Hall company disintegrate, nor is there effectively another West End theatre, save the Haymarket, where they would be so suitably sited; if the new Blair government is to deliver on its promise of a happier climate for the arts than has recently been evident, then their first mission should be to safeguard Hall and the Vic, no matter what the cost to the Lottery or the Arts Council.

And if you doubt me or the importance of an urgent cheque, check out the current King Lear. True, it is not in any sense revolutionary, nor is it especially topical; it is, simply and superbly, a reminder of the timeless majesty of the play. Alan Howard's unusually Christ-like Lear, Denis Quilley's sturdy, sterling Gloucester, Greg Hicks's noble Edgar, Alan Dobie's weary Fool, Jenny Quayle and Anna Carteret as a brace of wondrously wicked sisters and, perhaps above all, Victoria Hamilton's infinitely touching, St Joan-like Cordelia are all performances to treasure and there are still more where these came from. Hall and Howard's Lear is heroic, mainstream, heartbreaking and dazzling in its confidence; unlike many other recent revivals, there is never a moment when the production, on a brilliantly jagged set by John Gunter, seems in conflict with the text. The fidelity is all, and it is more than enough.

Sheridan Morley

Spectator, 4.10.97

Playing Shakespeare/King Lear