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A CurtainUp Review
King Lear

Get thee glass eyes; and, like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.
-- Lear
King Lear
Timothy West as King Lear (Photo: Stephen Vaughan ETT)
Timothy West brings his triumphant Lear to the London Old Vic, the English Touring Theatre's production honed and seasoned after a successful tour of the UK. Lear, like Hamlet, is a paradoxical play. It uses the form of an epic chronicle with its kings, queens, dynastic disputes, war, and civil war. But it is essentially a chamber piece which asks a simple question: How do we cope with old age, in ourselves or in others? King Lear is a family saga where one man's failing faculties spark a ferocious display of greed, jealousy, lust and sadism pitted against simple decency. We are not so far from the world of Strindberg.

Stephen Unwin's direction underscores the intimacy by using a simple wooden stage (designer Stephen Warmington) which slants menacingly down towards the audience, dragging us into the action. This is not a production for lovers of the opulent grand style. Everything happens here in front of us on these stark bare boards - in turn a royal court, a storm-blasted heath, a torture chamber, a battle field - with minimal use of props. Costumes (by Mark Bouman and Stephen Warmington) are simple and elegant and undistracting. (Perhaps we could do without the giant images of lunar skies which sometimes hang above the action. What are these meant to suggest: Lear's lunacy? The planetary influences mocked by villainous Edmund?) The simplicity reminds us we are here to see acting.

King Lear, no less than Hamlet, is a mountain of a part to play. It demands great stamina, range and sensitivity as the aged king must begin with semi-divine authority and progress into dementia. Lear is by turn arrogant, aloof, petty-minded, enraged, tetchy, pitiable, funny, generous, devout, deranged, contrite and, finally, distraught with grief. Luckily for us Timothy West is an agile mountaineer, with a CV that includes brilliant comic acting as well as classic acting. (One cannot help wondering about the breakfast table conversation of West and his wife Prunella Scales, who between them have given some of the greatest comedy performances of their generation.)

West's Lear is profoundly human. Unlike the semi-mythical figures portrayed by Laurence Olivier or Paul Scofield, he is someone we might actually know. He is perhaps too human to convey the awful majesty of the monarch in Act I, whose word is death or banishment, and whose curse terrifies, but he comes into his own when Lear's awful descent into despair and ultimate wisdom begins. As these scenes accumulate West finds progressively more depth and pathos in the role so that when the play reaches its conclusion the emotion is almost unbearable. Even if you find the play too dark, and many do, you will still have the unique experience of seeing a great actor living one of the great roles.

This is Timothy West's night, but he is ably supported. David Cardy makes a believable Fool, taunting Lear as he spirals downwards, a part very hard to bring off, even if he plays it a little too close to a Northern stand-up comic. Dominic Rickhards' Edmund is convincingly evil, attractive and sexy. You can readily believe that Goneril and Regan would fall for him, and even kill for him. Jessica Turner and Catherine Kanter, as Lear's daughters, persuasively suggest sisterly collusion and sisterly strife. As their power grows, their descent from princessy bitchiness to unrestrained sadism is all too believable. Robert East's Albany presents a decent man adrift in a monstrous world while Christopher Campbell's Cornwall shows the sadism behind the mask of brisk military professionalism.

But the director should have reined in Grant Gillespie's Oswald a little. This louche and oleaginous royal servant (a type still flourishing in our royal palaces, as recent scandals show) leaves us with the uncomfortable suggestion that camp equals evil. He also gets too many laughs, which lightens the tone of the play too much, not least the scene of his own death. The odd thing is that there are jokes in King Lear: they underline the themes and modulate the texture of the play. But in this production they are pitched a little too high. Something has gone wrong when the sight of the Earl of Gloucester's mutilated face gets a laugh. Other moments are spoilt by levity, and even, the great final scene of the play teeters on the edge of absurdity as a stage already cluttered with bodies is augmented by two more brought in on a baggage-cart like lost suitcases.

But Timothy West's performance towers over these weaknesses and gives a Lear by which others will be judged for years to come.

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Stephen Unwin

Starring: Timothy West
With: Christopher Campbell, David Cardy, Ashley Cooper, Garry Cooper, Michael Cronin, Robert East, John Finn, Nick Fletcher, Grant Gillespie, David Glover, Catherine Kanter, Ita O'Brien, Rachel Pickup, Dominic Rickhards, Steve Sarossy, Robert Styles, Jessica Turner, Timothy West
Designer: Neil Warmington
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Costume Designers: Mark Bouman and Neil Warmington
Music: Olly Fox
Sound: Duncan Shave
Running time: Three hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7369 1722
Booking to 19th April 2003
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 26th March 2003 Performance at the Old Vic, The Cut, London SE1 (Tube Station: Waterloo)

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