KING LEAR
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 28 September, 1995

Warren Mitchell neither is, nor tries to be, remotely monarchical in the title role of Jude Kelly's strange production. He is clearly in his dotage from the first, affectionately cuffing courtiers and coldly groping his daughters when he speaks of their issue. This Lear is, in effect, already enjoying power without responsibility; it is his notion to formalise and extend this state of affairs which sets off the calamitous chain of events.

In his bush-hat and sandals, Mitchell's Lear could as easily be a cracked mogul as a king, a Howard Hughes-like figure whose subordinates either dare not speak plainly to him or incur his volcanic, Maxwellian wrath if they do. The corporate image is stronger in the early scenes of the Gloucester plot: Trevor Baxter's impeccably groomed, pinstriped Earl, Damien Goodwin's bookish, adolescent Edmund plotting in his bedsit and Robert Bowman's Edgar with his jeans and brandy snifters recall the atmosphere of Hamlet Goes Business. By Act Three, however, all initial airs are dispelled as both Lear and Gloucester enter an outside world which is far crazier than the court.

Kelly's recklessly anachronistic setting of the play (in Paul Andrews' design) is both one of the major strengths and weaknesses of the production. The point is borne home that these events could be taking place in any era; Act Five's armed camp mingles ornate sword-and-sorcery-style pikeshafts with cumbersome chemical-warfare suits, locating the battlefield somewhere between the worlds of Mad Max and Doctor Who. Yet elements frequently seem to possess a bewildering, hidden symbolism: why, for instance, does Edmund have a set of twinkling sea-mines strung from the ceiling of his room? Why does the disguised Kent resemble a New Age Maori? And might it not be a tad insensitive to put a practical rainstorm onstage while Yorkshire Water has a drought order in force?

The over-fecundity of design reflects Kelly's production as a whole. Put simply, there are too many ideas on display here, too many even for this richest of Shakespearean plays. Sometimes it feels like sheer luck that, over the three and a half hours, enlightenment ultimately outweighs obscurity.

However, many touches both individual moments and broader ideas are inspired. Cordelia's expressions of trepidation before her testament of filial love are cut, allowing her to become neither a blunt-speaking angel nor a "feisty" girl, but simply matter-of-fact and resolute throughout Maria Miles' fine characterisation. The Bedlam beggars whom Edgar impersonates are constant presences on the road to Dover, helping him guide the blinded Gloucester and even supplying a mattress to break the latter's fall.

Damien Goodwin handles Edmund's transition well from venomous dreamer to adulterous, martial demon, always retaining a hint of incredulity that his schemes are actually succeeding. Tricia Kelly and Alexandra Gilbreath as Goneril and Regan show real horror at the love-contest and their father's subsequent asinine revelry, although their continuing sisterly solicitude even as one poisons the other is more puzzling. Toby Jones is a mightily impressive Fool, evidently accomplished at the capers and gags he performs to the tinny accompaniment of a portable cassette player, but who can no longer be bothered with pretending to be stupidly merry in the face of Lear's much greater foolishness and genuine madness, and finally hangs himself onstage.

Which brings us back to Mitchell. This mad Lear, after his initial outburst on the heath, does not vie with the storm in bluster, but subsides into rapid, monomaniacal mumbling. Despite occasional inaudibility, it is more chilling for being less theatrical, and adds poignancy to his correspondingly low-key recovery and death. The final scene likewise restores full lucidity to a production which frequently frustrates, but never loses attention.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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