Theatre: Madness with a personal touch

King Lear Royal Exchange, Manchester
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The Independent Culture
Audiences at the Manchester Royal Exchange are not accustomed to shows starting at 7pm. So, despite advance warning in the leaflets, there have been more late-comers than usual hurrying into their seats at 7.30. By that stage in Gregory Herzov's admirable production of King Lear, the kingdom has been divided, the king's favourite daughter disinherited and his loyal servant banished. The main virtues of Tom Courtenay's performance as Lear are already crystal clear.

The late arrivals missed Courtenay hitching up his sparkling brocade gown and shuffling towards the throne with an informality that comes from knowing you're in charge. Once seated, his voice spells out, in those familiar plaintive tones, his plans for carving up his inheritance. As he listens to his youngest daughter's rebellious frankness, he presses his fingertips together and purses his lips. He twitches, grimaces and then freezes a look on his face. We are left to guess at the thoughts racing through his mind. It's a tidy piece of close-up acting: from seeing his film work, we would expect nothing less.

A friend said he thought that Courtenay was one of life's Fools rather than one of life's Lears. Of course, there's plenty that's foolish about Lear, but the friend's judgement was wrong. We know Lear needs a nasty temper and, when it comes to getting really pissed off with people, Courtenay has carved out his own distinctive line of attack. We have seen this soft and feline actor provoked beyond endurance by the egotism of his actor- manager employer in The Dresser or the dismissive manner in which his best friend's partner smokes a cigarette in Art.

When Courtenay gets angry, he homes in on his target with the unwavering persistence of a heat-seeking missile. In the first act of Lear he turns his appalling invective on an ungrateful daughter, calling on Nature to "convey sterility" into her womb and dry up in her "the organs of increase". Helen Schlesinger's Goneril blanches and shrivels in the face of of this onslaught.

With actors of Courtenay's calibre a production barely needs a concept. His personality determines the balance of the scenes. Some suit it, others don't. A bookkeeper could enter them in a ledger. On the credit side, Courtenay scores when dividing up his kingdom, raining down curses on his children and in those moments of dawning realisation when he catches sight of the petty ways in which he has lost his status. His voice drops to a quiet certainty when he tells Goneril that he has another daughter. He turns his ear towards a rebuff as if it he couldn't have heard what was being said correctly. When Courtenay wakes from his sickness to discover Cordelia standing in front of him, he blinks, he readjusts to the light and focuses on his daughter. The audience finds itself eavesdropping on domestic tragedy with a proximity that is almost embarrassing.

On the debit side, there's the big set-piece number when he confronts the storm on the heath. Courtenay is happiest when he can centre his spleen on a narrower target than winds, "cataracts and hurricanoes". Nor is he at his best when, broken-spirited and slightly bonkers, he returns with a coronet of flowers on his head: an actor with his own vein of whimsy has little room to manoeuvre when his character turns whimsical.

The recent run of Lears have shown us the King from all sides. There was the proscenium version with Alan Howard at the Old Vic. That was declamatory and poetic. There was the traverse staging with Ian Holm at the Cottesloe. That had fierce prosaic arguments flying back and forth. This latest Lear is an in-the-round version with Courtenay doing 360 turns like a clockwork figure on a stand. This staging suits his sly inviting style well. It's an untheatrical performance which serves his relationship with his servant Kent more than that with his Fool. Terence Wilton's vigorous Kent delivers plain speech with a nasal gruffness that carries a hint of Humphrey Bogart. Ian Bartholomew's Fool, with shaven head and sheepskin breeches, has a theatricality that's out of step with Courtenay's Lear.

Herzov doesn't mess any of this up with clever ideas. The designs place this Lear in a medieval world of goblets and gauntlets, long sleeves and tall hats, coarse matting and rugs. Some medieval Astroturf is rolled on when we reach the heath. The elegant velvet and satin costumes bear witness to the excellent dry-cleaning facilities available in the pre- Christian world. Noblemen can cross South-east England in the aftermath of a heavy storm and still arrive on Dover beach in flowing robes without a speck of mud.

The few moments when Herzov does let the boys in the special effects department have some fun are largely counter-productive: the dry ice that billows down from the central lighting rig during the storm suggests that a spaceship is about to take off.

`King Lear': Royal Exchange, Manchester (0161 833 9833), to 23 October