THEATRE / Illusions of power: King Lear- RSC, Barbican

After seeing the Robert Stephens / Adrian Noble King Lear at Stratford last season, Prince Charles is alleged to have said he'd never seen a more potent argument against abdication. Very filial of him, of course, and all the more so given that the first scene of Noble's production may actually strike you as mounting a strong case for making kingship a fixed-term office.

An atmosphere of ingrained, suffocating flattery hangs round the Age of Reason court assembled here for the division of the kingdom. Clearly corrupted by years of being told that he is everything, Stephens' Lear stages the love-test with a complacent waggishness, his daughters put in the hot seat like expert contestants on Mastermind. Only Cordelia's candour can pierce his carapace of conceited flippancy.

Curiously, the rage and petulant viciousness that you would expect from such a man is not Stephens' strong suit. With that smoke-kippered voice, ravagedface and pregnant waddle, his Lear is most affecting in the quiet, chastened moments when compassion seems to strike him like some novel thought. The battered humanity is now in danger of becoming a mite too tear-jerking, though. Some of the lines are inordinately dragged out and others suffer from irritatingly approximate recall. On opening night, for example, this Lear proclaimed that 'When we are born, we cry that we are come / Unto this great stage of fools', which, apart from marring the rhythm, sounds as if he's trying a bit too hard to run the gamut of emotion from A unto Z.

Shifting from a vaguely 18th-century court to a symbolic cosmic landscape, the production proves to be an odd mix of subtleties and crudities. As Goneril and Regan, Janet Dale and Jenny Quayle turn into caricature bitches, the former particularly hard to take seriously once she is togged out like a hard-rutting refugee from Jilly Cooper's Riders. On the other hand, the repellence of Simon Dormandy's effete thug of a Cornwall is given an added edge by his erotic instability. He can't admit to himself that he lusts for Owen Teale's relaxed, strapping Edmund so he takes it out on him by assertions of sadistic dominance.

The power of evil is most forcefully shown, though, through the unexpected medium of the virtuous Edgar, excellently played by Simon Russell Beale. Performing the role a few years ago, Kenneth Branagh introduced the jolting idea of Edgar savagely pulling out the eyes of his bastard brother in revenge for the blinding of Gloucester. This felt altogether too neatly eye-for-eye. Here, the point made by Beale's less predictable eruptions of violence is a more general and disturbing one: that even a good, well- meaning man will be lucky to escape infection from the depravity with which he is surrounded. In the bleak light of this, Stephens' last-minute vision of a benign heaven opening its gates to him and Cordelia comes across as a piteous illusion.

In rep at the Barbican, London EC2 (071-638 8891)

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