THEATRE / Lear: a fortress built on a fault

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The Independent Culture
EVER SINCE resolving to devote itself body and soul to new writing, the English Stage Company has regularly fortified its programmes with classics. To begin with, these were known as 'pylon' productions: solidly-rooted old favourites supporting a string of untested novelties - such as George Devine's revival of The Country Wife, which saved the company's bacon in its opening 1956 season. Later, following the discovery that pylons could collapse just as easily as the latest Howard Barker, the focus shifted to reclaiming authors like Middleton and Otway whose work was certainly new to the average theatregoer.

With Max Stafford-Clark's arrival at the Royal Court 13 years ago, the emphasis changed yet again: this time back to familiar texts, but presented as never before. The Court stage is tall and narrow. It is suited neither to heroic spectacle, nor to intimate address. What can sustain classics in that surgical environment is energetic and original thought - as in Thomas Kilroy's rural Irish adaptation of The Seagull, or Jonathan Pryce's unearthly doubling as Hamlet and the Ghost. King Lear, Stafford-Clark's Shakespearean debut and outgoing show, is another production in this vein.

Its opening scene in the throne- room lavatory unmistakably proclaims the return of Shakespeare our contemporary, even though the costume at this point is Edwardian: Sam Browne belts for Kent and Edmund, diplomatic black tie for Hugh Ross's Gloucester; then riding kit for Goneril (Lia Williams) and Tom Wilkinson's monocled Lear, who first clumps on like a hippophile Hindenburg, and appears to be abdicating so as to devote his full attention to fox-hunting. He is still in the prime of life (his confession to being 'four-score and upward' is cut), which means that he has more to lose than a man whose time is almost over.

Despite his abrupt rages, he also embodies decisiveness and common sense so forcefully that his mad action in dividing the kingdom and his subsequent fears of madness carry an extra charge of hubristic dread: like a fortress built over a geological fault. The production emphasises this by rattling the Freudian skeletons in Horseback Hall: letting Lear's followers loose on Oswald like a pack of hounds, and then bringing on the Fool in drag (a fourth daughter?) to pleasure the old man with an orgiastic spanking. More than any Lear I can remember, this bluff philistine earns the line from Regan (Saskia Reeves) that he has 'ever but slenderly known himself'.

The production has no answer to the storm, which transmits nothing beyond thunder-backed rant. But Wilkinson, from the Dover scene onwards, obsessions reflected in autistic movement, and his ogreish bark reduced to pianissimo gentleness - as at his recognition of the blinded Gloucester - is deeply affecting, and a truthful development of what he was before.

He is by far the best thing in the show, but he is not what it is about. The subject, as publicly divulged by Stafford-Clark, is the 'withdrawal of central authority': so Lear himself figures only as the means by which internecine strife is released on the kingdom. The parallels with post-1989 Europe are all too evident. But unfortunately Shakespeare failed to write a play about the refugees and blindfolded civil war victims who swarm over Peter Hartwell's disintegrating set. Adrian Dunbar, as an unsmiling, Irish Edmund, does reconcile the textual character with the opportunistic warlords of today; and delivers the production's key line, 'Men are as the time is', so that it sears the memory. Otherwise the production sacrifices individual character to the generalised picture. You cannot follow the sisters' steps from duplicity to atrocity; nor the transformation of Iain Glen's corduroyed student Edgar into Poor Tom; and least of all the life- line of Andy Serkis's Fool from the bewigged tease with a riding crop to the prophetic skinhead who makes a series of late arrivals to fire off menacing conundrums and spray graffiti on the ruins. Guns and barbed wire hide all.

'We're not hunter-gatherers any more, we're shoppers,' remarks one of the air-crash victims in Andrew Cullen's Self Catering, turning up her nose at the surrounding desert island and concluding that it resembles Southport in its lack of amenities. This self-styled 'short history of the world' tells the old tale of a group dropped into the wilds to reinvent social injustice from scratch. You know what is coming; but, in Kate Rowland's Altered States production, it still comes as a surprise: partly through the group's comic detachment from their dire predicament, partly through force of personality. Cullen gets around the pitfall of schematic characterisation by making the brainiest of the group a film buff who sees the situation as an adventure movie and himself and his fellow castaways as Hollywood stars. The device works beautifully, particularly when the sexual and territorial imperatives begin to engage, with the burly Clint commandeering the beach and the food, leaving the others feeling they are indeed stranded in the film of some sadistic director - like Lear's flies to wanton boys. Matilda Ziegler and John Griffin head an excellent cast.

State of Bewilderment, the Trestle Theatre Company's contribution to the London International Mime Festival, is a collaboration with the Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig. My affection for this company has been undermined by their exchange of inspired slapstick for moral melodrama. The present show marks a return to comedy; but, alas, in the guise of the victimised little man - a hang-dog figure in a boiler suit, variously put upon by skyscraper- headed bullies, officious park attendants, and hatchets plummeting from the sky. Finally, aided by one Vasco Pyjama in the guise of a rowing Snoopy, he makes it to some happy land, where - having by now turned into a teapot - it is not long before he gets his spout into a willing cup. The rod-puppetry is expert; the masks undergo extraordinary transformation; the whimsy sticks in the craw.

Whatever the weight of experience and feeling behind James Robson's King Baby, the RSC has done the author no good service in staging this piece of alcoholic agit-prop. Set in a North Country rehabilitation unit, it is described as a 'journey of self-discovery' for the drink-sodden garage- tycoon who moves in as a last attempt to save his business and his marriage. No such journey takes place. James (Tom Georgeson) swaggers in and settles down to sneering at the confessions of his fellow alkies and the Christian group leader, giving absolutely nothing away until the final minutes. You know he will give way in the end; and the play compels you to sit through a string of confessions and admonitions from the rest of the group until his moment arrives. The piece is poorly characterised, ill-structured, and a good half-hour too long. Compassion has seldom aroused me to feelings of such intolerance.

'King Lear': Royal Court, 071-730 1745. 'Self Catering': Cockpit, 071-402 5081. 'State of Bewilderment': Cochrane, 071- 242 7040. 'King Baby': Pit, 071-638 8891.

(Photograph omitted)