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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
King Lear
by Ben Clover

Thou should not have been old before thou was wise.
--- Fool
King Lear
Corin Redgrave as Lear and Louis Hilyer as Kent
(Photo: John Haynes)
That the audience came away disappointed from this production of King Lear wasn't entirely due to the burden of high expectations. These were lofty enough because it starred Corin Redgrave, scion of an illustrious acting dynasty, as Lear with the rest of the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Albery, in the heart of London's Theatreland. The disappointment can be laid at the door of a creaking production that punched well below its weight.

The stage was set unobtrusively stark by Tom Piper and Jonathon Goldstein's music was a good attempt at a Philip Glass fanfare but the overall effect was underwhelming. That we weren't given a firmer idea of setting wouldn't have mattered if the action of the play had been more assured. For Lear to really work either the King's descent into madness or the politicking of his relations must grip the audience. In the RSC's production neither commanded the attention and the tone was curiously even throughout. Always a challenge to pace correctly, this Lear had precious little zip and seemed even longer than its 225 minutes.

Redgrave's King appears first like a slightly embarrassing, aged relation on their birthday, asking his three daughters to flatter him. Then for the rest of the play he does vein-popping rage until he's finally struck mad. Only fleetingly is this Lear compelling in his descent although at one stage he reminded me of a Sgt Bilko struck down by Alzheimer's. Normally a versatile actor, here he used little variation in his portrayal of the tragic monarch.

Supporting performances that elicited no sympathy did not help the situation. Lear's loyal friend Kent (Louis Hilyer) seemed to deserve being put in stocks at the very least the night Curtain Up saw the show, and perhaps being made the subject of an Anti Social Behaviour Order. He seemed the devoted bully despots dream of as henchmen and detracted from the idea that Lear was more sinned against than sinning. David Hargreaves's Gloucester also seemed to deserve almost everything he got, coming across as a fool far too eager to mistrust his innocent son. For a night so full of overacting the famous eye-putting-out scene, normally so Tarantino-esque, seemed under-played.

It was left to the reliably fun parts of Edmund, Goneril and Regan to really put the nasty in dynasty. While Matthew Rhys's bastard has a grand time deceiving, seducing and riding his luck, the wicked sisters seemed a little less wicked when you saw what their father was like. One interesting characterisation was having Cordelia as a petulant sort who, when reunited with her unlucky father, felt more sorry for herself.

No one performance was outright bad in this King Lear but none, bar Edmund, was quite right. This was a doubly disappointing production considering the fine ingredients that had gone into it.

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bill Alexander

Starring: Corin Redgrave
With: Pal Aron, Louise Bangay, Sian Brooke, Peter Bygott, Caolan Byrne, Samuel Clemens, Matt Cross, Ruth Gemmell, Sean Hannaway, David Hargreaves, Louis Hilyer, Michael G Jones, Tam Mutu, John Normington, Emily Raymond, Matthew Rhys, Jack Whitam, Leo Wringer, Anatol Yusef
Set Designer: Tom Piper
Costume Designer: Kandis Cook
Lighting: Tim Mitchell
Sound: David Tinson
Music: Jonathan Goldstein
Running time: Three hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6621
Booking to 5th February 2005.
Reviewed by Ben Clover based on 28th January 2005 performance at the Albery, St Martins Lane London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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