A few years back, everywhere you looked there was a Lear. Anyone old enough to have fathered three daughters of marriageable age was playing the only role which is the same as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Eric Porter, Anthony Hopkins, John Wood and Brian Cox divided up their kingdoms, had a good yell on the heath, staggered around with a lightweight actress in their arms, died and took the applause.
"Playing Lear is not as enjoyable as playing Falstaff," wrote Robert Stephens, "he's not as loveable and he has far fewer jokes." Despite such misgivings, Stephens crowned his career with a performance which everyone praised to the skies. Had I been fortunate enough to see it, even I might have been moved. I say this because Lear usually leaves me cold. My fault, to be sure, but I'm usually too overawed by the play to be transported by its undoubted emotional power. The exceptions were Reimann's stunning opera at ENO, which doesn't really count, and Deborah Warner's underrated National Theatre production with Brian Cox which played in tandem with Richard Eyre's Richard III, the inspiration for the McKellen film version.
The National is now previewing Eyre's Lear with the great Ian Holm, who in the 1960s and 1970s appeared in the first productions of every new play you can think of. Stage fright restricted him to the TV and movie screen for far too long - but Pinter lured him back, a few years ago, with Moonlight. He was last seen playing opposite his wife, Penelope Wilton, in Pinter's production of his own play, Landscape.
An actor of immense restraint and quiet authority - remember his scalding pain and frustration in Dance with a Stranger - this collaboration promises the sweet smell of success. So much so that the entire production is sold out, but day seats and returns are still available.
EYE ON THE NEW
Recent South African history displays urgent links between sport and politics, but people all too readily deny the political dimension to theatre. Augusto Boal, one of this century's most important theatre practitioners leads a debate at the RSC on the relationship between theatre and politics, with Janet Suzman, Tariq Ali, Jatinder Verma, RSC director Michael Boyd and Labour's Mark Fisher, MP.
Barbican Theatre, London EC1, (0171 638 8891), tomorrow 5-7pm