The Cube / Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 15 / 16 November, 2006
*** / ****

Having initially been misinformed about its running time, I had to abandon Yellow Earth Theatre's King Lear at the interval of its last performance in the RSC's Complete Works festival in order to stand any chance of getting back to London the same night. (Why are rail services to Stratford so unremittingly terrible?) I'm afraid I didn't feel heartbroken to do so. While the first three acts were not by any means bad, I got the impression that after their initial decision to collaborate, David Tse Ka-Shing's Chinese-British company and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre expected a momentum of ideas that did not materialise. Zhou Yemang's Lear became a corporate kingpin in a near-future Shanghai; the company delivered some lines in English, others in Mandarin (largely in keeping with actors' respective nationalities); the Fool became a chorus of inner voices; but nothing else of note. I shan't be feeling obliged to catch up on the rest of the show's UK tour.

The feeling of anticlimax might have been less had I not, that afternoon, caught one of only four performances here of Claus Peymann's magnificent 2001 Berliner Ensemble production of Richard II. The central visual metaphor may be overdone: an accretion of earth and water on Achim Freyer's spare monochrome set rather belabours the point that faction and civil war are turning the governance of England into a quagmire. Much of the delivery – strongly declarative, from predominantly white-made-up faces – may owe more to the company's Brechtian history than to Stratford sensibilities. But it made its points (and, above all, Shakespeare's) beautifully and powerfully. Michael Maertens may be the finest Richard I have ever seen, Sam West and Kevin Spacey not excepted. His is not a negligent king, simply an insufficiently commanding one; he exudes a great emotional clarity at every instant, and can find a wealth of resonance in a single word. Manfred Karge is a looming, Machiavellian presence as the Duke of York, and there is even a running gag in which Hanna Jürgens' oft-fainting Queen is revived by water. Thomas Brasch's translation is described as "faithful to the original, with additional wordplay" – boy, is there ever! Love's Labour's Lost does not pun or romp as much as Richard's exchange with the dying John of Gaunt. But it is shot through with a sardonicism perfectly in keeping with a play from which no-one emerges unsullied. A bleak, mordant delight.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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