A Funny Way to Play King Lear

Daily Mail (London), January 21, 2005 | Go to article overview
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A Funny Way to Play King Lear


Byline: QUENTIN LETTS

King Lear

(Albery Theatre, London)

Verdict: Long on disorder, short on personal insights ***

LEAR played to laughs is a strange idea. A Lear who mumbles many lines, snorts with mad hysterics, flaps a pointing hand and keeps half-turning his head; this is a bold interpretation of Shakespeare's hardest role.

Corin Redgrave will have his fans. There will be some who find his Lear modern, who will like this king for being unregal and for reacting to his terrifying misfortunes like any selfish, 21st-century man. I'm afraid I was less convinced.

When a four-hour production - four hard, heavy hours - ends with a monarch standing over his three daughters, laid out like slain hinds on the hill, I want to have been swept up in the story of how fortune's wheel reached such a sorry pass. I don't want to have been distracted along the way by faddish tweaks.

I certainly don't want some in the audience to laugh at the finale's high death count, as happened this week. They laughed quite a lot, almost in every scene, and even after the 'vile jelly' outrage when Gloucester's eyes are removed.

This constant trickle of laughter may indicate that the fool (Leo Wringer) is more successful a comedian than most Shakespearean fools, but equally it may suggest an audience that is discomfited and perplexed.

Director Bill Alexander's interpretation has some fine moments. It tacks hard to the chaos of Lear's upturned order, while perhaps underdoing the human grief.

The storm scene is done with fantastically loud thunderclaps but there is no rain, just as there are few convincing tears throughout the play's puzzling tragedy.

Wicked sisters Goneril and Regan are sexier and more politically poisonous than is normally achieved. Here are two real, growling 'tigers, not daughters'.

Ruth Gemmell, in particular, gives Regan a memorably guttural edge.

Matthew Rhys's Edmund is a handsomely nasty piece of trouser, such a contrast to his snowyheaded father Gloucester (David Hargreaves). It is not Mr Hargreaves's fault that he looks far more like a traditional Lear than the brown-haired, youthfulgestured Redgrave.

Repeatedly, Alexander tries to yank his audience out of its cocoon.

The costumes are a modern mishmash, ranging from Edwardian frock-coats to medieval armour.

There are numerous exits through the auditorium, which may be fine for comedy or pantomime but can strain the credibility of a great, surging tragedy.

I know this is the modern thing but it seems needlessly trendy that one of Gloucester's sons is Asian.

The final sword fight is big on clanging blades but so slow you can see the sequence joins. Caolan Byrne's Duke of Albany, with his dimples and moony smile, seems not so much a 'milk-livered' nobleman caught up in bad deeds as a completely clueless, wet naif. For me, Mr Redgrave's informality with the verse is overdone, and I have never been much taken by the habit some actors have ( widespread here) of merging a despairing cackle into a wide-mouthed moan of grief. It is confusing and cliched.

However, Redgrave's final entrance, as he drags in (rather than carrying) the hanged Cordelia, still raises neck hairs.

Lear's own death in the arms of an excellent Kent (Louis Hilyer) is softly, beautifully done.

Don't let's say this is a bad Lear.

It's just one I did not much believe.

* VERSIONS of these reviews appeared in earlier editions.

Shining a light on Pinochet's shadow

Tejas Verdes

(Gate Theatre, Notting Hill, London)

Verdict: Chilean torture horrors close up ***

TERRIBLE things were done to opponents of General Pinochet's regime in Chile.The fate of one torture victim, a young woman from a good family, is being presented on the London fringe in a part-factual political play.

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