King Lear, Shakespeare's Globe, London


Back to basics for an emotional Lear

Dominic Dromgoole, who took over in 2006 as artistic director, has just signed up to remain for a further three years at the helm of Shakespeare's Globe. This is a cause for celebration, as his powerful new production of King Lear, the inaugural show of his third season, vibrantly confirms. Dromgoole's account of this most gutting and emotionally extreme of the tragedies is fluent, fast-paced and admirably direct.

Indoor theatres, often over-reliant on the wonders of technology, can cheat by using tricks of design to gesture towards the cosmic scale of this piece. There have been recent stagings where the set has spectacularly split apart at the onset of the storm, or where a giant sphere has cracked and disgorged sand over the playing space.

But the Globe removes that enormous support system of effects engineered by lighting, soundscapes and design wizardry. There's a naked concentration on the relationship between actors and audience and, to my mind, this is particularly valuable in King Lear, with its emphasis on sensory and emotional exposure – to the elements and to the sufferings of others.

Here, with stark simplicity, the tempest on the heath is evoked by a visible wind machine and by baleful drumming that bashes in scary syncopation with the beat of the verse and rouses a rabble of diseased, bleeding bedlam beggars. They swarm up from a trapdoor and twist and squirm alongside Trystan Gravelle's excellent Edgar in his unnervingly demented impersonation of Poor Tom.

Casting David Calder in the central role is Dromgoole's masterstroke. This stocky, superb actor has the gift of fusing thought and dangerously molten passion (he electrified last year as the intellectually bullying Marxist professor in Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll).

Here, he delivers a magnificent performance mercurially swift in tracking the King's erratic switches of feeling and his perplexing shuttles between reason and madness. His portrayal is often characterised, too, by extraordinary delicacy and lightness of touch. Unforced and unafraid of finding subtly quiet notes, he communicates the humour, the release into anarchic insight, and the final spiritual grace in the part.

He starts off in ebullient form, cocky enough to make a droll, mock-doddery joke of the idea that he intends "unburdened [to] crawl towards death" and sufficiently presumptuous to present the love-test as an upbeat family game. Even in his rage at the non-cooperation of Jodie McNee's luminous Cordelia, this Lear is soon betraying signs of guilty unease. He can't suppress the note of grief that trespasses into his voice when he declares that "we/Have no such daughter nor shall ever see/That face of hers again", as though realising that it's his own deprivation as well as her banishment that he is decreeing.

And this is typical of the emotional contradictions that Calder uncovers. He desperately hugs Goneril in the same scene that he curses her. He has an affecting, tender relationship with Danny Lee Wynter's spoofingly effete Fool but obliviously knocks him aside in his mad fascination with the jester's eventual replacement, Poor Tom. In the scene over Cordelia's corpse, no Lear could give a more bleakly unillusioned colouring to that final "never", but then he dies in a sudden access of joy, his eyes radiant with the sight of some redemptive vision vouchsafed only to him.

True, there are some disappointing patches in the Jacobean-dress production. Joseph Mydell is an unduly gentle and quiescent Gloucester; Daniel Hawksford could project more sexual charisma as the bastard Edmund. What's striking, though, is the engrossed attentiveness of the audience. During the Globe's teething period, the groundlings in the yard made a tiresome practice of heckling and urging the performers towards crude comedy. No more.

Even the scene of Gloucester's blinding made the two seconds of defensive laughter on opening night stick in the crowd's throat with a couple of psychologically disturbing twists. Roused to blood-lust by the violence, it's Kellie Bright's Regan who crazedly rips out the second eye, and the whole episode is counterpointed by the calm lute song from the gallery that persists with grotesque incongruity. Strongly recommended

In rep to 17 August (020-7401 9919); the 2008 season continues to 5 October

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