I've just seen Pete Postlethwaite in the foyer," whispers my neighbour incredulously. How could the actor – whose return to the stage where he began his acting career Liverpool has been trumping as the jewel in the crown of the Capital of Culture celebrations – possibly be mooching around the front door? It's not very king-like behaviour, but Postlethwaite makes a discreet entrance as King Lear, walking through the audience as those gathered on stage sing "For he's a jolly good fellow". A massive grey beard is what you notice first, then the narrow gold band round his head, then the brown suit.
There's no mistaking the year, as Thatcher's voice is heard intoning the quote she appropriated from St Francis of Assisi about discord, harmony, error and truth. Besides, the rather dowdy costumes of the people assembled around a table of meagre party food and paper cups place the period as the late Seventies. The director of King Lear, Rupert Goold, may have said in an interview that "Lear is more resistant to the conceptual buggering around that I normally do", but it clearly wasn't resistant to the fuzzy outline of topical political disarray he has applied.
There are some fine things in this busy co-production between the Liverpool Everyman, Goold's Headlong Theatre, and the Young Vic, to where it transfers in January, but also many baffling elements. The motivation may have been intended to be unfathomable, the disasters meaningless – but the characters, too? All this madness, disorder, disintegration and death – Postlethwaite cradling Amanda Hale's slender Cordelia in his arms – shouldn't have left me unmoved.
Postlethwaite's low-key Lear is effective rather than powerful, some of his words strangely muffled – perhaps lost in the mountain of home-grown facial hair. The growling anger he demonstrates at the outset when he is crossed by Cordelia is all too quickly diluted to irritability, fearfulness and bemusement. His is not a doddery, irascible reading, but a wheedling, almost whining one in which Lear's seismic change, his anguished turmoil, is internalised. Postlethwaite braves real water showering down on the heath. But, increasingly insane though he becomes, he doesn't strip to the buff. Finding the feminine in Lear, however, he does spend the latter part of the play in a flowery dress.
Postlethwaite has remarked that, in Lear, "the scenes are all over the place. Half the time you don't know where you are or why you're there." He claims it doesn't matter. It wouldn't – if Goold had come up with a less woolly interpretation. The kingdom which Lear is divvying up is a 3D model that pulls apart into three cases. Behind is a flight of weed-ridden stone steps leading to a grim, corrugated façade – Liverpool's St George's Hall, perhaps? So this is a community, not a country, teetering on the verge of disintegration. Film projection of the Toxteth riots of 1981 is complemented by police in riot gear on stage. But too much distraction of this nature impedes insight into the characters.
Of the three sisters, the deadpan Goneril (Caroline Faber) is pregnant, self-centred Regan (Charlotte Randle) is swanky and Cordelia – at first dignified in her frozen composure as Lear rails at her silence – remains a shade pallid. Among the nation of many accents patchily assembled, Forbes Masson's Fool is a subdued, wry Scot, Jonjo O'Neill's Edmund a garrulous Irishman, while Tobias Menzies is a convincingly crazed English "Poor Tom".
Goold's interpretation, we were promised, would "capture the spirit and atmosphere of an extraordinary city and a unique theatrical space". He certainly makes fantastic use of the apron stage, the steps on the three sides of the audience constantly occupied – even at times by poor eyeless Gloucester (played by John Shrapnel). He stumbles up and down after Regan has sucked out his remaining eye, spitting it into a water trough. She becomes disturbingly sexual with her husband Cornwall while brutalising Gloucester. It's his plight that makes you weep, rather than Lear's.
To 29 November. Sold out except for 12 tickets available in person only at 12noon on each performance date; then transferring to the Young Vic, London SE1 (020-7922 2922) from 29 January to 28 March