Theatre / King Lear Southwark Playhouse

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The Independent Culture
Intimacy is the keynote of Jack Shepherd's production of King Lear. Not for him the breast-beating epic of the king and his realm; instead a more man-sized tale of an elderly father and his grown-up daughters.

Oliver Cotton's Lear is an imposing figure, but he's seldom exactly regal. His court seems to have already gone the way of the Danish and Dutch royals: it's strictly family and friends. When he talks about crawling towards death, the resultant titter isn't sycophancy but recognition. They've heard the old man go on like this before (probably at Christmas over the turkey). Even Cordelia's suitors - Burgundy and France - are less than formal. When Lear withdraws Cordelia's dowry, France doesn't keep a distance, but pulls up a chair and reasons with him gently, as if the two of them have spent hours together, watching the football or whatever Dark Age men do together.

The Fool (Jim Bywater, miraculously garnering laughs from the hardest of "comic" roles) is an old mucker, not a young turk. Lear defers to him like a strapping schoolboy before his more diminutive but quicker-witted friend. The pair have been through a lot together, you feel. Come the storm, the Fool follows Lear like the back-end of a pantomime horse, clutching at his coat-tails as if he is physically holding back the king from going completely doolally. It makes a welcome change, too, from the usual unrestrained "cathartic" outburst.

The early scenes have obviously been thought about a lot - one of the advantages of developing a production through workshops over 18 months. But, as the play progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that "workshopping" has its perils, too, as an under-rehearsed cast tries to impose some overall pattern on the text.

The one-brightness-fits-all lighting doesn't help. It's like watching a film composed entirely of longshots. With nothing to guide the eye, it's increasingly hard to focus over the three and a half hours. Crucially, it's hard to get any sense of continuity from the various subplots. The main loser is Clarence Smith's frolicsome Edmund, whose journey from sympathetic underdog to murderous megalomaniac becomes nigh-on incomprehensible.

At the end of the day, this is a Lear where the whole is less than the sum of its parts - some of which should never have been there to begin with. When, in the final scene, the theatre's external doors are thrown open to reveal the gallows, it's a distraction more than anything else: you wonder what that police siren signifies or whether some curious passer- by will drift in off the street. Likewise, the Casualty-style mortuary scene, in which Albany's body is pointlessly wheeled on and off, or Edmund's military headgear, alarmingly reminiscent of a Guardian Angel's beret. Fair enough as workshop ideas, but shouldn't they have been left on the cutting-room floor?

n To Sat. Southwark Bridge Rd, London, SE1 (Booking: 0171-620 3494)

ADRIAN TURPIN

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