King Lear, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

4.00

 

King Lear is a daunting prospect for any actor – so too for an audience. Uncompromising, dark and sprawling.

But as director Ian Brown concedes in the programme notes for this new production it is permissible to struggle a little bit, even if you have no choice but to experience it at some point in your theatregoing life. "Whatever you think of it, whether you like it or whether you don't, it's there, and it has to be negotiated," he says.

Tim Pigott-Smith's aged king not only fulfils a lifelong personal ambition to play the role but provides a fine guide to steer the fainthearted through this, perhaps, the most hallowed of Shakespeare's tragedies.

He is avuncular, needy, vengeful, raging and ultimately lost to confusion, hitting each mark near perfectly during the long descent into madness and doom.

But his is not the only remarkable performance. James Garnon is outstanding as the cunning bastard Edmund, evoking a Blairish everyman charisma – funny and chilling by turns. Sam Crane is admirably over-the-top as his legitimate brother Edgar while Tim Frances plays the loyal thug Kent with brooding menace and energy.

The narrow, sloping set of the opening spins to create a blacked-out tempest scene during which Pigott-Smith, perched aloft, excels.

You can almost see the driving rain stinging his eyes, wetting his beard and soaking his frail body amid ear-splitting thunder and lightning.

However, the real tour de force comes in the opening of the second half with the sadistic blinding of Gloucester.

It is a disturbing scene demonstrating that no matter what the wealth and title of the perpetrator, the horror of violence viewed up close and personal is truly sickening.

Lear's deceitful daughter Regan, played by Hedydd Dylan exudes a sexual pleasure in the humiliation and mutilation of the old man with her husband Cornwall. Neve McIntosh is equally malevolent as her sister Goneril.

The looming sense of corruption and impending decay is meant to chime with the spirit of our times although it is hard to think of a period when it might not have been relevant.

This is a production skilfully realised in primary colours by Ian Brown and a consummate cast.

To 22 October (0113 213 7700)

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