King Lear, Nuffield Theatre, Southampton


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The Independent Culture

Now is the season to be jolly, with Lear thrown out on the heath, Gloucester blinded on his way to Dover and sisters killing each other over the same man. Who'd have thought of Shakespeare's grimmest tragedy as a stable mate to Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular (the one with suicide attempts over the holiday season)?

Tim Crouch, that's who, in his 80-minute Young People's Shakespeare production with nine actors that was launched on a national tour of schools and colleges last week in Southampton.

Starting on Christmas Day and ending with "Auld Lang Syne", with the Bing Crosby Yuletide songbook in between, Paul Copley's Lear develops the party-time motif in a long-ago Deborah Warner production (Brian Cox in a paper hat) to its illogical conclusion: a nice old buffer going bonkers when his youngest and dearest daughter turns up her nose at the biggest of his presents under the tree.

With Jonathan Pryce's Lear stewing nicely at the Almeida, Copley and co serve up a clever digest, though only the heartbreaking encounter between Tyrone Huggins's blinded Gloucester and Dharmesh Patel's devoted Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom, here a streetwise hoodie) punches its full weight.

But that was enough to hook the audience of school kids who then responded in full panto mode to Edmund's question as to which sister he should take. "The one in the red," they roared, referring to Anna Bolton's Goneril, leaving Carolina Main's Regan looking blue (though she was "the one in the green").

Copley's bluff joviality is removed like a cloak. His "ho-ho-ho" deserves no less. You feel for him, though, when he has to cope with the elements as well as Bing singing "Let it snow"; his "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks" sounds more defeated than defiant. It's a much better idea to have Matt Sutton doubling Kent with the Fool in a reindeer skin, or to spare us the full horror of the blinding and move the emphasis in that scene to the death of Cornwall, or to play "Silent Night" during the hovel scene.

"O reason not the need" needs more pointing in the banishment exchanges; the mock trial is a waste of time; and to import Feste's rain song is gilding the lily-livered. But as an example of extremely bad behaviour at holiday time, and as an introduction to a masterpiece, this is a pretty good, robustly acted, edition.

To 28 September in Newcastle and Truro, then touring to 1 December (0848001110;