Arts: Theatre: Artificial turmoil in a curiously constipated Lear

TOM COURTENAY performing King Lear has a certain built-in irony, since the play and film of Ronald Harwood's The Dresser has stamped him on most peoples' minds as the campy attendant to an outrageous Donald Wolfit-style knight of the theatre whose Lear is a legend. A little of the latter's titanic ego would not go amiss in Courtenay's king. In Gregory Hersov's drearily disappointing medieval-look production, he cuts altogether too clerical and spinsterish a figure.

A tragedy about exposure - to the pelting elements, to the pain of others - requires more self-abandon from its protagonist than Courtenay seems prepared for. Even when he is cursing Goneril or railing in the storm, there is a curious emotional constipation in his Lear. You don't feel that he is fighting to contain the tempest inside him, but struggling to whip it up artificially.

Despite the fact that this is a hero who, through suffering, comes for the first time to a genuine acknowledgement that there are other people in the world, Courtenay never seems to make an adequate connection with the rest of the cast. Its characteristic that when, in the final scene, he directs the courtiers to look at Cordelia's lips, his own head is flung back in stagy agony. But for that moment to work in all its supreme ambiguity and pathos, Lear, the wrenchingly cured solipsist, surely needs to die gazing searchingly and intently at the daughter he has wronged.

The production is marred throughout by miscalculation. For example, it is potentially a smart move to dress Goneril and Regan in the last act in the outfits they wore at the start. This could help to accentuate the gruesome way the conclusion mirrors the love-test opening - but now the three daughters assembled round the king are dead. But having gone to this sartorial trouble, the production throws the point away, since the corpses are brought on covered in blankets.

Helen Schlesinger's Goneril is authentically terrifying, yet she and Ashley Jensen, who plays Regan are, to my mind, too youthful. When Lear says: "I gave you all," Regan's reply: "And in good time you gave it" has the sarcastic bitterness of frustration, of daughters kept waiting until their father is nearly senile for a taste of freedom. That sense is missing here, and not just because of the fresh-looking actresses. Typical of a production where the verse-speaking leaves much to be desired, Ms Jensen obliterates the acid wit of that retort by putting the stress on the word "gave".

Some good performances stand out from the prevailing dullness. David Tennant is a striking Edgar who impersonates Poor Tom as a possessed, body-thumping Scot in filthy underclothes, and Adam James brings a sardonic, golden-boy cool to the machiavellian machinations of Edmund.

But the design, with its Persian carpets and balding square of turf, and the costumes, with their risible inverted plant-pot hats, look a mess. And with Courtenay's disappointing Lear, the production seems to lack a centre. As the wife of the theatrical knight puts it in The Dresser: "We can't play King Lear without the king. No one will pay to see the crucifixion of the two thieves..."

Paul Taylor

To 23 Oct, 0161-833 9833