Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 21 January, 1993

There's an old Irish joke about a hiker who asks directions to Ballybunion and is told, "Ah, well, yer honour, I wouldn't start from here." That's pretty much my feeling about outgoing Royal Court artistic director Max Stafford-Clark's King Lear (and let's forget those spurious identifications of Max with Lear Coriolanus might be a better benchmark).  In determining to stage the play as a commentary upon the dissolution of a state when bereft of a central power, Stafford-Clark concentrates upon particularly contemporary relevance at the expense of the universal; it's impossible to miss the Bosnian resonances in the final act as soldiers rush through a shattered, barbed-wired city while refugees scuttle for cover but this is, after all, meant to be "the tragedy of King Lear".

Tom Wilkinson's middle-aged, gouty Edwardian paterfamilias deals at first in curt pique rather than inflamed rage. This Lear's foibles are apparent from the start (being spanked by a Fool in period drag, setting his riotous knights like hounds upon Goneril's supercilious steward Oswaid), but the proceedings threaten to tip irredeemably into the lesser key of bourgeois tragedy. His recovery from madness in the second half (especially his touching reunion with Hugh Ross's patient, frock-coated Gloucester) hits the expected emotional register, supported by Iain Glen's bewildered, horrified Edgar; but we fail to see the developing factiousness between his elder daughters, and Adrian Dunbar's transparently artificial Ulster Edmund must leave most of the audience groping for a handle upon his characterisation.

After Hamlet, King Lear is the Shakespeare play most likely to fall prey to dogma of orthodoxy; in this case, however, as the body politic takes brute precedence over the human body at the centre of the story, a little more tragic convention might not go amiss.

Written for City Limits magazine.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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