RADIO / Vowel, vowel, vowel, vowel]: John Gielgud, 90 this week, sounded as good as ever in the role of King Lear. But the Renaissance production was not the tribute it might have been, says Robert Hanks

Hammy, according to Sir Ian McKellen, interviewed by Sue MacGregor for Conversation Piece (Thursday R4), is what we call actors who are a little bit old-fashioned. He was talking about Laurence Olivier, and Olivier's conviction that his great achievement was to bring naturalism into Shakespeare acting: as Sir Ian pointed out, if you look at Olivier's performances now, with their concentration on disguise and their (by modern standards) declamatory style, it's hard to feel that naturalism is their outstanding quality.

It's worth bearing that definition of a ham in mind when considering John Gielgud's performance in Renaissance Theatre Company's King Lear (Sunday R3); and worth remembering, too, that when Gielgud and Olivier did their celebrated Mercutio / Romeo double in the 1930s, Gielgud was the conservative one. That was 60 years ago and now, 90 this week, he seems almost a relic - at any rate, he resembles a relic in the degree of veneration he comes in for. The cast list of this production alone gives you an idea of his status - everybody from Peter Hall to Bernard Cribbins, Judi Dench to Robert Stephens, rolled up to pay birthday homage.

As a means of paying tribute to a great actor, then, the casting of the play was certainly a success, and perhaps it was also justified by the publicity that it got for the production - very few plays on R3 ever get one-tenth as much attention from the press as this one did. But it would be hard to argue that the play did Gielgud any great honour beyond that. For one thing, this simply wasn't the great performance from the man himself that you'd have liked it to be. At times it felt very diluted - as when, in the storm scene, presumably as a concession to 90-year-old vocal cords, Lear's howls of outrage against the elements are turned, by a not-so-deft acoustic gearshift, into an internal monologue, destroying the sense of passion overflowing and uncontainable. At other times it was just unremarkable, taking no risks, offering no new insights. There were many moments - particularly Lear's final speech, weeping over Cordelia's body - when you had the sense of something marvellous flashing into view. But in the end this was impressive as a record of Gielgud's voice, not of his interpretative talents.

Perhaps that is inevitable, because Gielgud is an actor out of another era, an era when speaking Shakespeare beautifully could be more important than speaking it meaningfully - in his case, with that voice (a 'cello', according to Peter Hall on Saturday's Kaleidoscope tribute on R4), the emphasis on how it sounds is understandable enough. But that's a style that doesn't work for an audience brought up on the extreme naturalism of film and television, and the less rhetorical Shakespearian manner of, say, Ian McKellen.

The performances of Gielgud's that work best now are those in which he is subverting his Grand Old Man of the Theatre pose - most obviously, in his one great popular success as the foul-tongued butler in Arthur; but also in Prospero's Books, where Peter Greenaway's imagery constantly chipped away at any sense that this was an ordinary 'classical' performance. In this King Lear, there was nothing to disarm Gielgud's theatricality, although there were, at times, some jarring bits of acting, such as Michael Williams' Wheeltappers and Shunters-type Fool, a failed Northern comic not a million miles from the part he plays in September Song on television.

In other ways, too, the starry casting worked against the production - for one thing, it's just enormously distracting when every two minutes you realise that, say, the man with the silly French accent is actually Derek Jacobi. It's distracting, too, to see so much talent wasted - Bob Hoskins playing against type as Oswald, the steward; Maurice Denham getting all of 30 seconds as the Old Man who leads Gloucester on the heath. With talent like this available, Richard Briers' sober, competent Gloucester starts to look like something of a casting error.

But perhaps these problems are inseparable from a production with so much baggage attached - as tribute, as marketing opportunity (cassettes available in the shops now) and as swansong for Renaissance. Incidentally, Kenneth Branagh's nasty Edmund was the only completely satisfactory performance in the whole thing, sounding as though he was getting a really villainous kick out of the speech on bastardy and fate. In the end, the only thing of lasting value to come out of this production was probably another batch of Gielgud's rolling, majestic vowels - it is, whatever else, a lovely noise. And perhaps we should count that enough to be going on with.

(Photograph omitted)

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