Theatre / The Holm coming

Ian Holm crowns his return to the stage with a magnificent Lear; THEATRE King Lear Cottesloe, National Theatre
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In the Cottesloe, the smallest of the National's three auditoria, Ian Holm, star of Richard Eyre's traverse-staged production of King Lear, received - and richly deserved - an ovation at Thursday's opening night that would have filled the Olivier. This is a performance that pushes itself magnificently to the punishing extremities of the title role. Watching it, I was reminded of William Empson's great observation that we view Lear at the end "with a sort of hushed envy, not I think really because he has become wise but because the general human desire for experience has been so glutted in him; he has been through everything". Convincing you that he has travelled to the limits of experience, Holm's Lear leaves you feeling both glutted and gutted.

Even when reduced to a shufflingly infirm captive, this king - short, crop-haired, bushy-bearded - can send out, in daunting flashes, reminders of his former fierce authority. It's not in every production that the soldiers escorting the king and Cordelia to prison have to back off, startled, from a sudden flare-up of the regal temper. Emitting low, frighteningly animal-like growls, when crossed, this Lear, once he has forfeited the kingdom, communicates a tremendous sense of a frustrated power urge.

Of course, the way he renounces the throne is itself an abuse of power, as Holm shows in his invidious behaviour during the love-test, staged round a conference table, where he goadingly embraces Regan while Goneril is making her declaration, plants a kiss on Cordelia's head that slyly suggests the contest is a foregone conclusion, and amuses himself by encouraging and then abruptly disallowing laughter at the line "while we / unburthen'd crawl towards death". But having had the whip hand, he is soon - in a neat, unforced piece of symbolism - having to use his whip as a humiliatingly lop-sided crutch when left reeling and choking for words by displays of daughterly hard-heartedness.

Exposure is crucial to King Lear: physical exposure to the storm on the heath and exposure of the heart to the sufferings of the most wretched. Holm's king impulsively strips stark naked in compassionate emulation of Paul Rhys's agonised Edgar / Poor Tom. I've never seen the relationship between this pair conveyed with such a mutually fascinated, moving tenderness: the thought strikes you, as you watch Rhys sheltering himself and Lear in a ragged blanket, that Poor Tom becomes, in a sense, an emotional stand- in for the banished Cordelia. The depth of the rapport is such that here, heart-rendingly, even when Edgar has shifted to a different disguise, Lear has a fleeting moment of puzzled half-recognition.

Holm's performance is full of such beautifully considered touches. For example, when he's in flower-garlanded madness, his emotions go on wild, associative zig-zags. One moment, he's weeping harrowingly because the lines "When we are born, we cry that we are come / To this great stage of fools" have reminded him that he's wearing the soft conical hat sported, before he died, by Michael Bryant's ancient Cockney Fool, a music hall Big Ears look-alike who is a wonderfully elusive mixture of involvement and detachment. But the next second, as Lear is smothering this garment in kisses, it's the feel of the material that here prompts the crazy idea of shoeing a troop of horse with felt. And shortly afterwards, to give the slip to his attendants, he is prepared to toss the hat away.

Thank God Holm managed to conquer that protracted bout of stage-fright. I was amused to see that, in its Hot Tickets section, the Evening Standard surmised that Eyre's production "should provide a suitably doomy contrast to the irresistible feel-funky factor of his Guys 'n' Dolls" - as though tragedy, with a great actor at its centre, can't produce its own kind of elation.

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Paul Taylor