Arts Theatre, Cambridge/touring
Opened 15 November, 2002

Stephen Unwin's production of King Lear for his English Touring Theatre (which I saw at the Cambridge Arts Theatre) is as clear as a mountain stream, and not just in terms of the narrative. Unwin's own version of the text, published in the tour programme, not only cuts it but also repunctuates it for modern comprehensibility and dispenses with the Shakespearean five-act structure and stage directions. This rigorous eschewing of conceptual fripperies is occasionally a double-edged sword. With no idiosyncratic vision to bind them together, there is little sense of ensemble among the cast, and individual members stand or fall entirely on their own performances.

At the centre of the three-hour evening is a magnificent piece of work from Timothy West. West has amassed a lifetime's worth of techniques, devices and experience what a jazz musician would call "chops" which he can deploy effortlessly, but without any corresponding actorliness of manner. His Lear is full of little grace notes: a visible instant of second thought before confirming the banishment of his truest daughter Cordelia, a prophetic minor spasm of the heart as, enraged, he also exiles his plain-speaking courtier Kent.

This is not a Lear whose madness is self-indulgent; his advance glimpses of it are genuinely fearful rather than just rhetorical flourishes. And the madness, when it comes, is not all "Howl, howl". West's voice simply runs on, often in an almost conversational tone, sometimes downright tired of all Lear is seeing and thinking, always finding the cracked life in the lines themselves rather than imposing a performance on them. One appreciates at once the great craft which has gone into his work and the natural appearance of the result.

West's Lear is complemented by the gruff Gloucester of underrated character actor Michael Cronin, by a solid Kent from Garry Cooper (who dons only minimal disguise to re-enter Lear's service as the blunt-speaking Caius) and by David Cardy's lame, guitar-strumming Cockney Fool (who seems to expire of pneumonia on the heath shortly after the interval, thus clearing up the ambiguity surrounding Lear's final-scene remark "And my poor fool is hanged", which is now clearly about Cordelia).

As I say, however, it's a bit of a lottery as regards particular performances. Rachel Pickup never really establishes a personality for Cordelia; Dominic Rickhards goes too far the other way as Gloucester's deceitful bastard son Edmund, behaving almost like a pantomime Iago; Nick Fletcher rather falls between two stools as honest brother Edgar, coming into his own when disguised as the madman Poor Tom but sporting an unhelpful blend of solemnity and faint camp in his courtly persona.

The strange thing is that these variations in acting calibre do nothing to pull Unwin's production apart. Rather than a sense that different actors are in different productions, the impression is given that all is part of the clarity of this same evening: that we can watch diverse abilities and approaches without being distracted from the narrative and dramatic thrust which in the end keeps everything travelling successfully in the same direction, with West's towering performance at its core.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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