There is obviously a strong case to be made for presenting Lear as a man who, because of his background, is conditioned to believe that he is either everything or nothing. What we get here, though, is a diminished idea of both extremes. Stephens may raise his riding crop to thrash Janet Dale's Goneril, thrown off balance by her rebukes, but his delivery of the dreadful curse has little alienating violence or twisted bitterness. And while, ultimately, any Lear must convince us that he is 'a man more sinn'd against than sinning', we need a stronger sense than we are granted here that this has not always been the case. It's characteristic of this production that when Lear's unruly knights return from hunting - still immaculate in their red coats - it's hard to see how such spruce toy soldiers could be anything other than model guests.
But Stephens comes into his own in the scenes of madness and late-flowering compassion on the heath. Looking at the start of the evening like God the Father as He might have been painted by Franz Hals, he comes to resemble (to a quite startling degree) one of Rembrandt's late self-portraits. There's the same haunted humanity and pained self-knowledge in the face as Lear learns to see past his private woes to the sufferings of the lowest of his subjects. The hoarse gentleness of Stephen's delivery at such moments has an exposed quality that removes from the lines any suspicion of self-approving rhetoric.
At times, he is moving in spite of the production. It may be one of the ways in which Lear pre-figures Shakespeare's late romances, but the musical accompaniment to the reconciliation with Cordelia should not coat the scene in schmaltz as it does here. Scorning simple pathos, Stephens performs Lear's grief over his daughter's corpse with a piercing truthfulness to the way that bereaved love can manifest itself as resentment. 'She's dead as earth': this Lear invests the final word with deep disgust and knees the body over like a lump of meat.
In 'Cordelia. Cordelia] stay a little', the stricken voice rises in almost irritated emphasis, as though this concession was the very least she could make in the circumstances. It's a shame, though, that the production should steer this heart-rending display to a kitsch conclusion. 'Look on her, look, her lips, / Look there, look there]': irradicating any ambiguity, Noble has this Lear point away from her face at something in the distance that causes him to light up with hope as he strains towards it, pulling Cordelia along.
This vision of the pearly gates, apparently granted to the hero here, surely coarsens and simplifies the conclusion. But Adrian Noble, the director, seems to have a penchant for this sort of thing. At the end of his current Hamlet, the hero and his father are shown joyously re-embracing in the after life. Given that his much belated success in murdering Claudius comes way down the list of the Prince's claims on our attention, it's curious to conclude with a picture of him reaping the rewards of it, as though he were any old conventional revenger. By the same token, in a play which offers scant comfort in its stark, clashing views of the 'justice' of the gods, it arguably demeans Lear to have his hopes raised, not by the illusion that Cordelia lives, but by the prospect of heaven.
The production seems more interested in devising large, clunking symbols than in exploring character and relationships. When David Bradley's Gloucester is blinded, a huge globe, suspended in the amoebic heavens, splits and sheds sand on to the stage. Throughout, the realm is represented by a large underfoot map, a gagged Fool (Ian Hughes) reluctantly painting on red lines to indicate Goneril's and Regan's portions. In the battle towards the end, this paper is ritually ripped to pieces.
There's a lumberingness about some of these 'ideas': the stocks for David Calder's Kent, for example, are fitted with wheels, furnishing an over-convenient visual aid for the Fool's 'Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down hill . . .' Now that's what I call making the text live.
Not many of the characters are deeply pondered, but as the virtuous Edgar, Simon Russell Beale passes facinatingly from prissy swat to a Poor Tom who would make Caliban look like Harold Acton and finally to a figure who has clearly not been able to remain immune to the dangerous influences of the time. Having felled Owen Teale's bland Edmond, he makes a lunge for his eyes and has to be hauled back. There's more than simple filial loyalty in that gesture.
Continues at the Royal Shakespeare, Stratford (Box office: 0789 295623).