No one seeing Robert Stephens as the Royal Shakespeare Company's Lear could have come away suspecting him of any self-promotional motive. For one thing, unlike its closely thought-out forerunners, when the performance opened in Stratford it was only half finished. It announced the ruling idea of a man who has been gorged with uncritical approval all his life, and who slithers in a vacuum of enraged terror when the flattery is switched off. But when it came to expressing the rage, the character vanished and all Stephens had to show was functional rhetoric. His heart was not in playing the tyrant. What this tragic hero was interested in was penitential reconciliation, to those he had wronged and to the whole of mankind.
In exploring that side of the character, Stephens not only abandoned rhetoric; he opened up the 'rag-and-bone shop of the heart' in a way that took you into the furthest recesses of private memory. 'Speak what we feel,' run the play's last lines, 'not what we ought to say.' With Stephens this led to heart-stopping collisions between famously sublime lines and the down-to-earth, often child-like, actuality of his delivery. 'Cordelia, Cordelia] stay a little,' he pleaded, like a disappointed little boy whose best friend is leaving the party early. Inflection after inflection stamped itself on the memory. Great acting, according to Peter Hall, consists of revelation, not impersonation; this performance proves his point.
In a year that also included work as brilliant as Mark Rylance's underdog Benedick in Much Ado, Penelope Wilton's Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, Alan Bates as Thomas Bernhard's barnstormingly paranoid Showman, and Steven Berkoff's tour de force in One Man, there is no obvious runner-up. But I would settle for John Kani as the caretaker in Athol Fugard's Playland, a black South African actor bringing himself to declare his forgiveness for the white race: a performance even surpassing Robert Stephens' in personal content.
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