THEATRE / A giant among kings

'IT'S TERRIBLE when they're so old you can't hit them,' snaps the long-suffering daughter of a Zimmer-bound parent in David Cregan's Nice Dorothy. The same thought has evidently occurred to the daughters in King Lear, but seldom with such justification as in Adrian Noble's production.

They inhabit a court where government has been taken over by nursery games. At the start, the place is buzzing with gossip over the old man's latest caprice. In comes the monarch like a senile birthday boy, ready for a round of Carve up the Kingdom, for which each player sits in the middle of a ring to recite her party piece to polite applause: you can read the writhing embarrassment on the faces of the elder sisters, before Cordelia (Abigail McKern) throws her infantile parent into a fit of the sulks by refusing to play.

Robert Stephens's Lear is not a tyrant. He is a man spoilt by a lifetime of adulation. On those terms, he is geniality itself. He radiates benevolence like Father Christmas. When he speaks of 'our darker purpose' he italicises the phrase to raise a giggle at its absurdity. No one has ever thrown back anything but a totally flattering image; when they do commit this unspeakable transgression, the effect on him is shattering. If he is not everything, then perhaps he is nothing - a word that echoes with poisonous insistence through the early scenes.

This approach to the role makes good sense, but at the cost of magnitude, sublimity and all the larger-than-life expectations that Lear arouses. Stephens is an accomplished rhetorician; but when it comes to curses and majestic wrath he conveys precious little apart from rhetoric. He is an actor doing his stuff, but his real interest lies elsewhere; partly in Lear's unexplored comic potentialities (barking, 'Follow me not]' to David Calder's Kent, in the stocks), but above all in the spiritual voyage that takes place after the storm. Except when defying the gods, his delivery remains measured and gentle, wonderfully sustaining a plateau of nakedly precise feelings - childlike hurt, disappointment, bewilderment, awakening and loss - which are too truthful and specific to admit pathos.

Stephens never asks for sympathy. He articulates the crucial turning points (as where he abandons the mock trial of Regan to put nature herself on trial); but he charts a process of self-discovery with an unsparing honesty that bypasses orthodox theatrical effect. I can recall no performance of the role in which an actor gave so much of himself; in that sense, Edgar's line, 'Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,' is Lear's epitaph.

Although Noble's production begins domestically, the whole action takes place in the shadow of metaphysical emblems. On Anthony Ward's stage, a massive bridge rises and falls like a divine guillotine (tremendously, heralding the storm scene with a wall of driving rain) and a suspended globe cracks apart after the blinding of Gloucester, spilling nature's germens like sand. At such moments performances, too, freeze into emblematic tableaux; with David Bradley's tottering Gloucester silhouetted against the desert glare, or the Fool (Ian Hughes) inscribing a blood-red circle on the floor map to deliver his fatal prophesy. Counterbalancing this arsenal of deadly omens is the sound of distant music evoking the sense of a gentler past. The music belongs in particular to Edgar: only he can hear it, and the mud-caked Simon Russell Beale crawling like Caliban out of his den to pick up snatches of the melody in an unearthly tenor is a masterstroke for director and actor alike: both as an imaginative extension of the text, and as a formal means of holding the central scenes back from the brink of chaos.

Until then, Noble presents the villains on their own terms, as reasonable people. There is even a farewell sisterly embrace for the banished Cordelia; and when Janet Dale's thin-skinned Goneril and Jenny Quayle's compulsively beaming Regan do crack up, it is under strong provocation. Owen Teale's Edmund only cracks when Beale goes for his eyes in the duel: before that he presents a gallant image of Renaissance vitality, stating his designs on Edgar's estate with the amiable objectivity of an expropriating Marxist. In Simon Dormandy's foppishly homicidal Cornwall, the show offers one figure of unrelieved evil. Otherwise, the tragedy takes place between mankind and its pitiless gods. No production since Peter Brook's, 30 years ago, has revealed its dimensions so fully.

London's discovery of Thomas Bernhard, begun earlier this year with Elizabeth II at the Gate, continues with Jonathan Kent's production of The Showman, another venomous comedy in which a domineering monologuist harangues a defenceless company before the set collapses in ruins. The piece arrives in an elegantly witty version by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott, who have only been defeated by its punning title: Der Theatermacher, which also means somebody who kicks up a fuss. When not berating his cowed children and tubercular wife, the thespian protagonist spends his time denouncing Austria as a degenerate provincial cesspit with an unexpiated Nazi past - opinions with which Bernhard himself was in agreement. However, they got him nowhere: hence plays like this, in which the critic of society is ridiculed as the greatest absurdity society has to offer.

To work at all, the piece has to be tackled from a position of strength. The role of the farcical megalomaniac is only available to a genuine heroic actor, a requirement that is more than fulfilled by Alan Bates, who lets you see the monster Bruscon as he imagines himself as well as his grimy reality - flogging a talentless family troupe round a rock-bottom circuit of one-night stands. Donald Wolfit and Vincent Crummles rolled into one would make an abject comparison with Bates's overweening star - pausing thunderstruck on the threshold of the benighted venue for his next performance, and bellowing his demands for horsehair pillows, soup, and an instant interview with the village fire officer.

The basic joke consists of the huge disparity between Bruscon's pretensions and his circumstances; it is a joke anybody could make. In Bernhard it becomes funnier and more dangerous through excess: through the sheer nastiness of his treatment of others, and the dreadfulness of his vaunted masterpiece; through the fact that neither the long-suffering landlord (Eric Mason) nor his family ever defend themselves; and from the fact, magnificently conveyed in Bates's sledge-hammer phrasing, that what he says often makes sense. It is like Pere Ubu denouncing fascism.

When I saw Joe Dowling's production of Juno and the Paycock in Edinburgh in 1987, it seemed a heartbreaking commentary on the futile self-destruction of Beirut; finally reaching London, it applies with equal force to the former Yugoslavia. Everybody loves this play, but Dowling's version (nothing lost in the recasting) is one of the revelatory events of the past 20 years. Its innovations are easily described: it amplifies O'Casey's stage directions; acknowledges the worthlessness of Joxer and Captain Boyle; and gives the grieving Mrs Tancred her full due. The effect is to convert an uproarious national classic into a devastating international masterpiece.

No one ever again will be able to contrast O'Casey's tragic writing unfavourably with his comic genius. It is one seamless work in which the family knees-up to the hired gramophone combines inseparably with street lamentations for the dead republican boy. Anita Reeves purges the home-building Juno of self-righteousness. Mark Lambert's dung-beetle Joxer, evasive in all except rapacity, stays sober enough in the last scene to steal Boyle's last sixpence and spit on him. Niall Buggy shows you that Boyle welcomes his son's death and his daughter's disgrace, as he can now play the man and make no secret of going out to get drunk. The comedy is intact; but with what moral impact.

Nice Dorothy, I must briefly explain, is more than a suburban gloss on King Lear. A comedy of the generations, it shows a selfless middle- aged virgin (Auriol Smith) falling violently for a delicious boy, to the disapproval, consternation, and crazed jealousy of the company. Cregan's plotting could be better; his dialogue is incomparable.

'King Lear': Royal Shakespeare (0789 295623). 'Showman': Almeida (071- 359 4404). 'Juno and the Paycock': Albery (071-867 1115). 'Nice Dorothy': Orange Tree (081-940 3633).

(Photograph omitted)

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