The overall conception is excellent. This is a primitive, iron world whose social structures are imaged in designer Mark Hill's prevailing motif of the tripod - a scaffolding for Lear's throne, stands for bowls of fire, a hovel, and finally a gibbet. All is harsh metal, but still looks precarious and proves fragile. Edmund, scoffing at the superstitions that hold this civilisation together, kicks over the hearth-fire, and with the flying-apart that sees Lear cast out into the storm the three fire-bowls are set spinning on the floor like idiot woks.
The costumes (Amanda Bracebridge) and slashes of face paint suggest ancient Britain but also the steppes of Ivan the Terrible, thus allowing an unlaboured hint of present-day calamity. Fear beats this ground: as they prepare to speak, Goneril and Regan are no less petrified than Rachel Smith's striking Cordelia, and she is nearly as fierce as they. In the silence following her 'Nothing', only the scratching of Gloucester's pen can be heard. His fevered recording seems the vain effort of culture to stay barbarity. All are whirled to destruction out of terror and the intoxication of power. Esther Wilson's Goneril and Andrea Earl's Regan embody this, as when Goneril hurls her frustrated rage at her father's Fool, and Regan is both thrilled and horrified as she studies her work on Gloucester's eyes. The terrible lesson is that if people can do such things, they will.
'I will do such things,' is Lear's empty threat. The atmosphere of his court leaves no doubt of what he would once have perpetrated. His first approach is massively ominous, but it is a shrivelled figure in a cotton-wool beard that appears - it is his Fool. When Lee Beagley's bear- like Lear does materialise, coughing into his spittoon, he looks equally far gone into senility. It is in this kind of physical detail that Beagley - who, with Josette Bushell-Mingo, also directs - is most impressive. But the old man's foolish fondness is so evident early on that his subsequent disintegration is too little marked, and Beagley's voice, hoarse and darkly smoked, starts to seem limited by the time we reach the rueful reflection of such lines as 'I am not ague-proof.'
For similar reasons the production can't quite maintain the momentum of its initial impressions. The ingenious invention of Paula Simms' Fool starts to seem too busy to relay the words, and the commendable effort of Russ Edwards to invigorate Edgar produces a Poor Tom who breaks nearly every line with a convulsion. The 'Comedy of the Grotesque' is often brilliantly handled, as when Andy Frizell's superb music distorts the first three notes of 'Three Blind Mice' as a motif for Geof Atwell's movingly bewildered Gloucester. Stephen Book's Edmund, however, takes the pantomimic aspect too close to Dick Dastardly. The production is prolix, but at such moments as when Albany (Ken Bradshaw), learning of Gloucester's fate, asks 'Where was his son?' it makes the full terror of the loss of the human relation stand out with fearful immediacy.
At the Unity, Liverpool, to 7 November (051-709 4988). Tour details 051-709 2818.Reuse content