Theatre: O, ho, 'tis foul

King Lear Leicester Haymarket
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The Independent Culture
We associate the role of Lear with titanic actors in their late fifties, not with diminutive actresses in their late thirties. But if any female performer deserves the adjective "protean", it's Kathryn Hunter. With her tough, almost weirdly flexible little body and her intense dark features that can assume the look of anything from naive ickle-girl to ancient tortoise, she has an uncommon ability to shift shape and play either women or men. This was demonstrated in the triumphant multiple transformations she effected as the eponymous chameleonic death-portent in Caryl Churchill's The Skriker and, rather less persuasively, in the trio of roles (one of them an elderly king) she took on in a recent controversial production of Pericles at the National.

I wanted very much to like this transvestite Lear, particularly after a friend of mine, on hearing of the project, had sneered that they'd be casting Mrs Merton in the part next. But watching Helena Kaut-Howson's stark main-stage production at the Leicester Haymarket, I rarely found myself equal to the task. In its own much more highbrow and Complicite- influenced way, the actress's performance is, by and large, as mannered and distancing an impersonation of male old age as Clive Dunn's used to be in Dad's Army. "Thou art the thing itself," cries the king to Poor Tom; it's not a remark you'd want to make to Hunter's Lear.

Previously in the possession of the Royal Court - where a recent staging of this tragedy began with Kent and Gloucester peeing side by side in a House of Commons urinal - the trophy for the most unusal way of staging the first scene now passes to Kaut-Howson's production. Like the ending and the start of the second half, it's set in a bleak modern nursing home, with a geriatric Hunter left in front of a flickering telly on which, you deduce from the audible snatches of dialogue, a performance of King Lear has just begun. At the words, "the King is coming", Hunter's bewildered oldster begins to hyperventilate and, as screens are rushed in and an analyst's clan assembles, is whisked to a life-support machine.

Designed to emphasise how, for some people, going into a home is, in its emotional consequences, a Lear-story of sorts, this framing device makes you wish you could see a full play with Hunter as an ancient modern matriarch in this predicament. For when the screens part, and she reappears as Shakespeare's monarch, the outcome is disappointing. With long grey locks and a dwarfing three-piece suit that might as well be a placard screaming "woman in drag", she looks more like some eccentric midget in a freakshow than a king in whose countenance Kent can still detect authority. Rarely sounding as though the words have been wrung out of her by the moment, her verse-speaking quickly becomes monotonous with its choppy surfeit of caesuras and sudden vehement emphasis ("I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness...").

Only towards the end does she succeed in suggesting a true emotional spontaneity. In the scene where Lear awakes and is reunited with Cordelia, for example, she touchingly communicates with the abashed perplexity of the frail king as he tries to ascertain his whereabouts. It's perhaps no coincidence that by this stage and by the time she rocks the dead Cordelia in a wheelchair, as though it were a pram, Hunter has shed the suit and donned a white robe that helps you to forget the otherwise obtruding gender discrepancy. To 15 March. Booking: 0116 253 9797 Paul Taylor

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