King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Where is the raw emotion?
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The Independent Culture

Bill Alexander's Edwardian-style revival of King Lear at Stratford opens with a telling tease. The family and courtiers are lined up at a long dining table anxiously awaiting the arrival of the monarch. Corin Redgrave's Lear then emerges from the back hobbling painfully forward on a stick like some senile and decrepit dodderer when suddenly, with a great cackle of glee, he reveals his entrance to be prank and reverts to his normal self: a red-faced retired-colonel type who seems to have a liking for grimly jolly japes for he proceeds to conduct the love-test as a puerile lark, sloshing paint over the map of Britain as he divides the kingdom among his daughters.

Bill Alexander's Edwardian-style revival of King Lear at Stratford opens with a telling tease. The family and courtiers are lined up at a long dining table anxiously awaiting the arrival of the monarch. Corin Redgrave's Lear then emerges from the back hobbling painfully forward on a stick like some senile and decrepit dodderer when suddenly, with a great cackle of glee, he reveals his entrance to be prank and reverts to his normal self: a red-faced retired-colonel type who seems to have a liking for grimly jolly japes for he proceeds to conduct the love-test as a puerile lark, sloshing paint over the map of Britain as he divides the kingdom among his daughters.

If this behaviour suggests a king who is used to treating people with autocratic capriciousness, it also betokens here the insecurity of a man who, except when giving vent to petulant rage, appears to find it hard to be straight about feelings. This is the feature that leaves me torn between admiration for, and misgivings about, Corin Redgrave's subtle, highly intelligent but less than emotionally shattering performance. For my taste, too many moments are played as though within the defensive inverted commas of irony and sarcasm ("Are you our daughter?" he asks Goneril, his fur hat pulled jeeringly over his eyes).

I can understand the reasoning behind this: achieving such belated emotional literacy is hard and any man, particularly a once-cosseted king, might try to insure himself by adopting a tone of savage whimsy for the expression of deep anxieties and uncomfortable truths. What you lose, however, is the abrupt, unguarded pathos of those sudden, piercingly direct Lear utterances: "I did her wrong", "O reason not the need", etc. Actors who are intellectuals have a problem with this role. This character thinks from the gut. He may become a wise man, but he's by no means a clever one. Bypassing the brain is a tricky feat for brainy performers, but to communicate the elemental simplicity of some of the play's greatest moments, it has got to be pulled off. Stripped down to his baby-gro underwear during the storm and reduced to crawling towards the returned Cordelia on all fours after undignified release from a strait-jacket, Corin Redgrave attains this state of grace at a number of points, particularly at the set pieces. For example, his racked intoning of the word "never" over Cordelia's corpse is absolutely heartbreaking in its despairing wonder at the brutal irrevocability of life. Such inspired flashes make you wish that he would pare away some of the self-conscious quizzicality in the rest of the portrayal. There's no disputing his total commitment: what you crave is more abandon.

Designed with striking simplicity by Tom Piper (the brick wall at the back of the stage splits in two leaving a lightning streak-shaped hole), the production fields a strong supporting cast. John Normington's wonderfully humane music hall Fool achieves the rare distinction of actually making his material sound funny as well as bitterly wise; David Hargreaves lends extraordinary dignity to the sufferings of the blinded Gloucester, and Matthew Rhys brings a wittily withering contempt for convention to the collusive soliloquies of the bastard Edmund.

Bill Alexander's powerful vision of the play includes chilling touches that alert you afresh to the barbarism of its world. For example, in the climactic duel between Edmund and Edgar it's only chance that stops the virtuous brother from exacting primitive "eye for an eye" justice.

In rep to 14 October (0870 609 1110; www.rsc.org.uk)

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