Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 10 October, 2006

When Britain last saw the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg in spring 2005, they were mapping out the emotional territory of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya with a wealth of detailed domestic business. With King Lear, director Lev Dodin has taken a diametrically opposite tack. Every single thing superfluous to the personal relationships has been cut away. Even the word "King" in the title is redundant: other than a brief opening remark about "the division of the kingdoms" and the fact that Lear's courtiers and sons-in-law are named after places, there is no sign of statecraft or faction. Which, in a play whose second half involves the invasion of Britain, is going it somewhat.

Stark is very much the order of the day. The late David Borovsky's design has characters dressed entirely in monochrome (except for the Fool's red fingerless gloves), performing in an empty stage space suggestive of a barn or stables. With no bigger social or political picture – no sign of the convention in classical tragic drama that a great man's personal flaw takes its toll also on the wider world he influences – the focus is unremittingly on the twin family dramas of Lear and his daughters, Gloucester and his sons: paternal misprision, filial ingratitude, loyalty unlooked-for. Petr Semak and Sergey Kuryshev, giving powerhouse performances as Lear and Gloucester, are all but unrecognisable as last year's Astrov and Vanya.

Once or twice material is significantly rearranged: Edmund's early "Gods stand up for bastards" soliloquy now becomes pillow-talk as he tups first Goneril then Regan in Act IV; each woman, in the throes of passion, cries, "Father! Father! Father!" Mostly, the revisions consist of condensation, increasingly so towards the end: no sign of wars, battles or the public duel between Edmund and his noble brother Edgar. One minute Lear is in a fantasy dance sequence with all three daughters, almost the next he is cradling Cordelia's body while those of her sisters lie nearby. His final laments have no onstage audience – no-one to remark that the oldest have borne much and so on – to give a shapely, formal ending. What we get is naked, unadorned suffering and death. It's a powerful distillation, but like many strong spirits, it packs a kick without necessarily tasting of anything distinctive.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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