Royal Shakespeare Theatre¸ Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 30 June, 2004

In 1953 Sir Michael Redgrave played the greatest older role in all Shakespeare, King Lear, on the main Stratford stage. Now, in a unique double, his son Corin takes the same role on the same stage.  A number of reviewers have compared the two, even though hardly anyone will have seen Sir Michael’s performance.  As one born ten years after that event, all I can say with confidence is that Corin’s is the finest Lear I have seen.

In Bill Alexander’s 20th-century-dress production, Lear is not a great, noble monarch, but a brusque colonel type. He jokes – especially with his elderly Fool – and often conveys irritation or even anger with a bark of derision.  Likewise, when driven mad by his elder daughters’ treachery, his insanity isn’t towering, but all too natural.  Redgrave’s is a Lear for our times and our society. He lives in this world.

He is surrounded by a clutch of fine supporting performances, such as the loyal Gloucester of David Hargreaves; as Gloucester’s son Edgar, Pal Aron comes into his own when he in turn feigns madness as a form of disguise.  John Normington’s Fool speaks plainly to Lear as he has grown old with him.  And Louis Hilyer is having an excellent Stratford season: in addition to the faithful Kent, he’s Banquo in Macbeth.

Not every major player excels, however. Matthew Rhys is never Machiavellian enough as Edgar’s half-brother Edmund, and Anatol Yusef as Cornwall bangs the metre of his lines like a leaden drum.  But Alexander’s production has a great clarity to its narrative and design.  Tom Piper’s set is bare but for some tables and benches, recomposed to stand for each new location, even the hovel in which Lear shelters from the storm.

And at the centre of it all is Corin Redgrave. He has belatedly blossomed in the last decade or so, with a series of marvellously detailed stage and screen portrayals of both the good and wicked.  His Lear begins by doddering into the chamber of state, then flinging away his stick with a bullish guffaw; he ends by slipping away from life in a sitting position, almost unnoticeably.  It is a terrifically human performance.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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