THEATRE / Of dragons, despots and daughters: There's no question of simply slamming the front door like Ibsen's Nora: how are they to live?

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE chastened hero of King Lear awakens among friends for his reunion with Cordelia, one bystander remarks that the 'great rage is killed in him'. Affecting as this moment was in Robert Stephens's performance at Stratford last year, it also reminded you that the great rage had never been there to start with.

Stephens's Lear was a spoilt old child who had spent his life in a dream of adulation, never angry as nobody had ever crossed him, and finally emerging from this fool's paradise with no more than petulant disbelief. It made sense, even if it disqualified Lear from identifying himself as a dragon. Better that incomplete reading than the version that now reaches London, in which Stephens strives to restore the dragon. Instead of the novelty of a poisoned family party, we get the routine spectacle of an irascible despot needlessly throwing his weight about, and then screwing himself up into paroxysms of characterless rhetoric.

With a year to grow into the role, Stephens clearly shows that his heart is not in the dramatic preliminaries. What engages his imagination is not the violent opening crescendo, but the ensuing plateau of enlightenment. If there is anything to be said against these sublime stretches of Adrian Noble's production it is that Stephens's determination to justify every mood-change and image-jump sometimes dislocates the dramatic rhythm: he speaks at around half the speed of everyone else. This is not self-indulgence - it is an acknowledgement that Lear's words carry weight. The more transcendental the language, the more factually specific Stephens's performance. 'That way,' he says, pointing as if to a fork in the road, 'madness lies.' Effects like that are describable; less so, are the extended passages where he seems to have ransacked his innermost emotional recesses to produce inflections combining tragic utterance with the sounds we have all made in moments of acute dismay and regret. He is speaking for everyone in the house.

With Simon Russell Beale's unearthly Edgar, and a Goneril and Regan (Janet Dale and Jenny Quayle) who reveal the contrasted faces of villainy, the casting of this wonderful show remains intact.

The patriarch protagonist of Githa Sowerby's Rutherford and Son does not make Lear's mistake. He sits tight on his little kingdom - a Tyneside glassworks - and runs a maximum-security mansion for his three emotionally thwarted children. As a result, they hate him no less venomously than do Lear's progeny, and in the end, he loses everything as completely as if he had given it away.

A success of 1912, this piece has lately been rediscovered as a powerful document of Edwardian feminism. It is certainly that. Not only does it pulse with indignation and breathe the stifling air of class-imprisonment. It also escapes the sentimentalities of male authors (Ibsen included) who venture into this territory. Sowerby's girls - an embittered drudging daughter (Janet) and despised working- class daughter-in-law (Mary) - know that love solves nothing. One takes a man because her time is running out, the other to escape the London treadmill. There is no question of simply slamming the front door like Ibsen's Nora: how are they to live? Finally, in the play's best scene, Mary (Phoebe Nicholls) levels with the abandoned ogre in the only terms he can understand, and strikes a business deal with him over the future of her infant son.

Sowerby knows how these people talk; Katie Mitchell's production, too, excels whenever the action subsides into tight- lipped festering silences and the stunted characters speak only to put one another down. Vicki Mortimer's bleakly spacious set, with widely separated figures squatting in dark, uncarpeted corners, suggests a Geordie equivalent of Lorca's Bernarda Alba. When the action picks up, though, there is no concealing the fact that, structurally speaking, this is the standard northern first play - the one in which you say all the things you didn't quite manage to come out with while you were still living at home. Frequent and vehement are the denunciations of their parent by the downtrodden Janet (Brid Brennan) and her two underdog brothers - one of whom is improbably credited with an invention that will save the firm from going bust: a headlong collision between characterisation and plot requirement. It also goes without saying that none of the attacks makes the smallest dent on Rutherford Senior - a target role in which even the subtly resourceful Bob Peck can do little more than snarl his derision and re-light his pipe.

Northern domestic domination also looms large in Bill Naughton's Derby Day, but there is no recrimination in the world of this generous author. The piece has been adapted from Naughton's two-part radio play by the Octagon's director, Lawrence Till. In staging this picture of one day (1 June 1921) on a working-class street in Bolton for a Bolton audience, Till has hit a problem that did not exist with the radio version. He is simultaneously holding up a mirror and evoking a past time, with the result that his production is split between direct realism (such as Anne Rye's lovely, stoical performance, a portrayal of a widow sidelined by her daughter-in- law) and period caricature.

Otherwise the adaptation works beautifully, and the working-class street, with people constantly in and out of each others' houses, has huge advantages over the fixed, middle-class interior. Derby Day involves half-a-dozen families, variously engaged in a colliery strike, childbirth, family rows, adultery and fleeing the cops, but it is held together by a central plot-line (Maggie dreams of the Derby winner, which romps home, sending a variety of shock waves through the neighbourhood) and by Naughton's clear-sighted affection and understanding for everyone in the street, from the crooked, philandering Sidney (Fine Time Fontayne) to the taciturn Ned (Jack Smethurst), who seldom opens his mouth except to reprove his wife for serving strawberries after cowheel. I do not know how feminists would take this play; but it sends you away convinced that women have a right to rule the roost. This is a tough work with its heart in the right place: and much more about how we are than about how they were.

In James Maxwell and Jonathan Hackett's two-part adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, David Threlfall adds a handful of roles to his CV in the process of changing from the guileless young Edmond Dantes to the Byronic, vampire-profiled avenger. Apart from this spellbinding performance, the star of Braham Murray's production is its masked, red-silk troupe of scene-shifters, tumbling and cartwheeling over Simon Higlett's set, so as to absorb every setting into the hero's domain. The aim of the show is to tell Dumas' story as excitingly as possible. In terms of spectacle - with dragons and fireworks, and the hero's body slowly somersaulting into the waves under the Chateau d'If - it is stunningly successful. Less so in its congested plotting and under-cast support performances. A Victorian entertainment, with up-to-date technical conveniences.

'King Lear': Barbican, EC2, 071- 638 8891. 'Rutherford and Son': Cottesloe, SE1, 071-928 2252. 'Derby Day': Bolton Octagon, 0204 20661. 'The Count of Monte Cristo': Manchester Royal Exchange, 061-833 9833.