King Lear, Everyman, Liverpool
Othello, Lyric Hammersmith, London
Any Which Way, Only Connect Theatre, London

Rupert Goold’s staging starts strongly, but the Eighties setting throws up a muddle of allusions

Has Rupert Goold bitten off more than he can chew? This red-hot director of theatrical classics has just had two shows running concurrently in the West End: his bold take on Pirandello’s Six Characters…, and Pinter’s No Man’s Land which opened last month. But did that leave him time to get the full measure of King Lear?

His new Shakespeare production (which transfers from Liverpool to the Young Vic in January) is quietly |absorbing at the off. Pete Postlethwaite’s Lear is more like a family |patriarch at his retirement party than a monarch. With his carbuncular face and scrawny body, stooped in a three-piece woollen suit, this Lear might be an aged industrialist. His nearest and dearest – some with a liking for leather coats – are clustered around in paper party hats, helping themselves to hors d’oeuvres. There’s a touch of Hobson’s Choice, crossed with The Sopranos, only this is the late 1970s-going-on-1980s in regional Britain – entering Thatcher’s era of acquisitive greed.

Postlethwaite plays the boss as a showman by inclination. His Scots Fool (the excellent Forbes Masson) is a Working Men’s Club-style comedian, and the old man himself turns the division of his assets into an impish game show. The tablecloth is whisked off to reveal a scale model of his dominion, complete with toy trains and a small town on a cliff-top. He wields a microphone as he calls for winning eulogies from his daughters.

Lear’s descent into madness is sharply mapped too. Postlethwaite’s voice gurgles with volcanic rage when Amanda Hale’s stubbornly righteous Cordelia refuses to coddle him. Soon cruelly ousted by her sisters, he looks glazed – almost blind – with shock and grows fretfully introverted. Having given him a satiric earful, brandishing a megaphone, the Fool watches his decline with a breaking heart.

Goold continues the theme of speech-making on the heath, suggesting that Lear, a habitual leader, imagines his oratory is heard by the whole world as he launches into “Blow, winds .... You owe me no subscription.” With a mike again materialising in his hand, his pronouncements echo surreally, as if we’ve been sucked into his demented fantasies.

Disappointingly, though, the production starts to fall apart at around this point. Postlethwaite sometimes misses the fine line Lear treads between tragedy and comedy. Jonjo O’Neill has sly timing as Gloucester’s ambitious bastard son – an Irish Edmund – but Tobias Menzies’ Edgar is surely fooling no one with his dreadful impersonation of a homeless nutter, snorting like a pig.

Increasingly, Goold’s directorial concepts look strained, even incoherent. A recording of Thatcher is heard, preaching about harmony replacing discord, but if her era is the setting, what war is this exactly? Cordelia’s troops are landing from France while footage of inner-city riots is projected on a corrugated-iron back wall. When half the cast don balaclavas amid shelling, I began to wonder if the IRA had got mixed up in the Falklands. Lear isn't the only one who has lost his bearings.

For all that, many details are inspired, not least the idea that Goneril and Regan also go mad, in their different ways. Charlotte Randle's sexually sadistic Regan gouges out Gloucester's second eye with her teeth. Caroline Faber's more fragile Goneril, in mental breakdown, plays a kind of lethal roulette with poisoned canapés, offering them to both her husband and her cheating lover before Regan snaffles one. This production could improve, given time.

Meanwhile, Frantic Assembly have a startling hit on their hands, transplanting Othello to a grungy pub in Leeds, intercutting dialogue and dance. Shakespeare's script has been filleted and some lines still don't fit, but once you grasp that Cyprus is a council estate and the battles are gang warfare – fought with baseball bats and jagged bottles – the tragedy gains an electrifyingly new vigour and relevance. Choreographed by co-directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, the young cast slip thrillingly between naturalism and expressionism, drunken revelling and carnage. They vault and spin over the pub's pool table and slam against the walls which snake around on wheels, as if the room is really spinning. A skinhead in a tracksuit, Charles Aitken's Iago has a horrid darting energy and simmering racial hatred. Jimmy Akingbola's combination of swagger and vulnerability, as Othello, is spot on, especially with allusion to his tough childhood. Making Claire-Louise Cordwell's Desdemona a teenage ladette makes unexpected sense too, as she lolls around, quite innocently, on the laps of Cassio and other boys whom she has clearly known all her life. This show's bleak ending is undeniably a downer, but it's a grim truth. Recommended.

Lastly, you have to admire Only Connect. Working with ex-offenders and young people on the fringes of crime, this new theatre company-cum-charity believes drama can change attitudes. Any Which Way is about knife crime on a London estate. It's given a promenade performance by young non-professional and trained actors in the company's fine new premises: a converted chapel in King's Cross. The violence is frighteningly fierce, with Kareem Dauda's wired Stefan facing the repercussions of a fatal skirmish. Unfortunately, however, David Watson's play is a mess, structurally hacked around by director Maggie Norris.

'King Lear' (0151-709 4776) to 29 Nov; 'Othello' (0871 221 1722) to 22 Nov; 'Any Which Way' (0844 477 1000) to 29 Nov

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