Lear, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

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The Independent Culture

The name's Bond. Edward Bond. And the play's Lear. Just Lear.

The name's Bond. Edward Bond. And the play's Lear. Just Lear. A variation on the theme of King Lear, Bond's brutal and darkly humorous tragedy contains contemporary twists that make it more of a comment on the Shakespeare than an adaptation. The writer, who made his name in the 1960s with Saved, is far better known in France - where, remarkably, he is the most performed playwright after Molière - than in his native Britain. As a consequence of Bond's refusal to allow many productions of his works, the British theatre-going public has had little opportunity recently to revisit his plays, which makes the staging of his 1971 drama Lear a coup for Sheffield Theatres. It brings together the director Jonathan Kent and the actor Ian McDiarmid for the first time since they stepped down as joint artistic directors of the Almeida, three years ago.

Peering into the theatre from the foyer of the Crucible, you think at first that the production team is cutting it a bit fine to finish building Dick Bird's set, or that some urgent refurbishment is being carried out. The stage resembles a building site, with figures wandering around in hard hats and orange safety jackets, a cement mixer whining in a corner, and the dusty smell of turned earth drifting through the air.

Under makeshift lighting, a wall is being built on the instruction of Lear, a despot whose response to questions or defiance is to draw a gun. His people are safer, he maintains, within the confines of his walled land. But he's reckoning without his daughters' treacherous liaisons with his enemies.

As Lear's world begins to fall apart, so does the wall, and, with no justice in sight, the arguments are taken down to the barbed wire thinly separating actors and onlookers. The more mental and physical torments are piled on, the greater the clarity with which Lear sees the futility of his past ways, the emptiness of moral depravity, until finally, as Bond puts it, "at death he begins to make a new life". McDiarmid gives a scorching performance in the title role, his voice, his body language, his every move calculated to reveal another layer of his character's complex journey toward truth.

With a cast of 21 taking 74 roles, the acting is terrific without exception. Kent's direction is astute in its subtle pointing-up of the contemporary political resonances in the writing. To the accompaniment of stuttering gunfire, the roar of fighter jets, squealing pigs and mellifluous birdsong, Bond's glittering and brittle dialogue is searing in its intensity. Relief comes in the form of the gravedigger's son (Bryan Dick), who takes pity on the old king. But the moment of compassion soon passes. The young man is murdered for his act of kindness; his baby is slaughtered; and his widow, Cordelia, is raped and then transformed into the merciless head of a people's army.

Bond has said that he writes about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners, and in its graphic depiction of the cruelty of which humans are so coolly capable - blood spurting, guts spilling, eyes popping - Lear left me shaken, not stirred.

To 2 April (0114 249 6000)

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