THEATRE / The woman question: Paul Taylor reviews Max Stafford-Clark's production of King Lear at the Royal Court

Click to follow
LAST YEAR, Maria Aitken's Thirties film-set version of As You Like It gave the world its first transvestite Jaques; now, in his Edwardian-period King Lear at the Royal Court (his swansong there as Artistic Director), Max Stafford-Clark presents us with a Fool in a frock.

Something between Dame Hilda Brackett and a rougher, punked-up Julian Clary, Andy Serkis's excellent drag-queen jester bustles on, firing off 'her' home truths in a voice that keeps popping out of feminine falsetto into tough, no-nonsense south London. Soon, Tom Wilkinson's Lear, a large florid-faced Colonel Blimp figure, crouches on the floor before her and she pretends to ride him, whipping the monarch with his own crop. Lia Williams' fine Goneril is thus confronted with a sight that would blend in better chez Cynthia Payne than in a daughter's home.

Is this merely idle shock tactics (like the opening image of Kent and Gloucester having a pee side by side at a urinal, when you could almost hear the audience thinking 'Dear old Royal Court, blasting the plaque of tradition off the teeth of another classic')? No, the spectacle of a drag Fool goes deeper than this. It trains a telling sidelight on the hero's misogyny, a phenomenon which, along with the play's total silence on Mrs Lear, has provoked feminist writers to hit back, as in Howard Barker's Seven Lears staged at this very theatre.

The fact that, in Stafford- Clark's production, Lear can get on well with a travesty of womanhood brings home to you keenly how maladroit are his dealings with the real thing. He's the sort of man who was probably only too happy to clamber into a dress at Eton for the school play, but who then spends the rest of his life despising and distrusting bona fide frock-wearers. It's a weirdly moving moment here when the Fool angles the mirror on his powder- compact so that Lear catches sight of his own reflection and that it's at that point that the king first admits - fleetingly, brokenly - the wrong he has done Cordelia. A flash of male self-recognition in a little traditonally feminine object. There's misogyny in the old boy yet, though.

The busy dialogue between present and past, a traditional strength of classic productions at the Court, gets a little garbled in the way Stafford-Clark treats the crisis in the kingdom that follows the sudden removal of central authority. Painful thoughts of current atrocities in what was Yugoslavia are stirred, in the final act, by the cowed refugees hurrying with all their worldly goods bundled into supermarket trolleys, by the artillery fire, and by the roundings up (the Fool ends up being pushed offstage by a rifle- toting thug). But these tremors of contemporaneity are sounded at the expense of the Edwardian context and aren't easy to defend against cynics who will say they represent radical chic rather than a radical new look at the play's political horrors.

A strapping, middle-aged man who looks to have the constitution of an ox, Tom Wilkinson was never going to convince you he was an infirm octogenarian. Some of the extremities of the role are, consequently, beyond his reach. Within a slightly constricted range, though, he is very impressive, especially in the hushed fervour with which he gives voice to a late-flowering recognition of social injustice. The smaller roles are, in certain cases, badly undercast and the Edmund fails to compel; Hugh Ross and Iain Glen are powerfully affecting, however, as Gloucester and Edgar. This is a thought-provoking, brave, and patchy account of a daunting work, as you might expect from an excellent director and Shakespeare novice. When he leaves his Sloane Square kingdom, will Stafford-Clark 'unburthen'd crawl' to the RSC? They should roll out the red carpet for him.

King Lear continues at the Royal Court until March 6 (Box-office 071-730 1745).

(Photograph omitted)