THEATRE / The rack of this tough world: Paul Taylor on Melvyn Bragg's King Lear in New York at Chichester

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The Independent Culture
YOU HAVE heard of people with Lear-complexes; well, here's a play with one. King Lear in New York, Melvyn Bragg's first work for the stage, focuses on Robert (John Stride), a leading actor who, after a decade truanting in films and struggling with a drink problem, is about to make a theatrical comeback in an off-off- Broadway production of Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. For budding Lear-fantasists, the weather conditions in Manhattan at the time are well nigh perfect. At the start, as the thunder crashes and the rain sheets down, Robert bursts into his luxurious dollars 750-a-night hotel suite with a couple of bottles of Jack Daniels and an apt quote at the ready: 'Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks] rage] blow] etc, etc.'

He isn't taking himself seriously here, as is apparent to his devoted companion, Alec (Richard Warwick), who with his little conjuring tricks and habit of calling people 'Nuncle', seems destined to disappear without trace three-fifths of the way through (but, in fact, doesn't). At the end of this first half, though, after painful encounters between Robert and his crack-addict daughter (convincingly played by Maria Miles) and his svelte American second wife (Jenny Seagrove) - to say nothing of the intrusions of a grotesque television gossip- monger (Kate O'Mara) and her film-crew - there's no ironic distance whatsoever in Robert's rendering of the 'I will do such things / What they are, yet I know not' speech, nor in his stormy exit on the line 'O Fool] I shall go mad . . .'

What is embarrassing is not the character's identification with Lear, but the play's identification with Lear. It's all too likely that an actor rehearsing such a titanic role would begin to perceive his experiences in terms of the tragedy. The trouble is that Bragg seems to endorse this view, even though the links between the two heroes and their families are pretty tenuous. The contrived correspondences (Robert waking up on the couch in his dressing room to see not a daughter, but his first wife; Robert with his drugged-up daughter in his arms in an alleyway in Washington Heights) are not mutually illuminating, but give the events in the play an unearned resonance. If you ponder the parallels, it actually diminishes your concern for Robert (Lear, after all, did not have a plush hotel room and a little apartment in the Village in which to shelter from the storm).

There are good things in the play. Guilty at screwing up his daughter's life by leaving her mother, Robert delivers a funny, brutally frank speech about how out of place some fathers feel in toyshops (under the unsettling surveillance of other equally awkward fathers) which darkens into a bitter declaration of belief that most men should just 'breed and beat it'. The discussions between the hero and his two spouses, though handicapped in his favour, show a fine ear for the convolutions of acrimony.

Kate O'Mara brings infectious relish to the role of Jackie 'the Jackal' (who has blackmailing footage of Robert and is at the theatre, horny for disaster, to see if he shows up on the opening night of Lear). But the strand of the play that deals with the showbiz politics behind Robert's tricky career choices (if he bombs here, Hollywood will withdraw a big new movie offer) seems time- wastingly over-elaborate.

Except in the embarrassingly tame scenes in the New York alley, Patrick Garland's production serves the play well and John Stride is in splendid form in the title role, full of scorn and self-hatred and vulnerability. It's a witty, moving portrayal, built on a generous scale. He almost makes you want to stay on for Robert's performance as Lear, which is just beginning as Bragg's play ends.

Continues at the Chichester Festival Theatre (0243 781312).

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