THEATRE / Youth custody: Jeffrey Wainwright on Talawa's production of King Lear in Manchester

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The Independent Culture
Old before thy time' must be the line that has inspired the interpretation of the title role in Yvonne Brewster's new production of King Lear. Ben Thomas's strapping monarch certainly gives no impression of crawling towards death, more that he is unburdening himself while still young enough to enjoy an early retirement.

Several years ago in Deborah Warner's Kick Theatre Lear, Robert Demeger played the king as unusually young, mainly to give his patriarchal authority a martinet's threatening aspect. There is little of this about Thomas's version, for all his imposing presence. The impression instead is of a man young enough to remember the pranks of youth, and, having never outgrown them, eager for their recapture. So his early roistering in Goneril's household features lots of big-boy-playing-little- boy pranks, such as imaginary horseback riding. The pained look of Goneril (Lolita Chakrabarti) as she regards his cavortings with Mona Hammond's contrastingly mature Fool, is of someone who feels she has outgrown her own father.

There are losses and gains from this approach. We miss the sheer pathos of age; nor do we have much sense of a once substantial figure, still capable of drawing the bow of unthinking and unchallenged anger. Certainly Diane Parish's refreshingly girlish Cordelia does not anticipate his terror.

The principal gain from Thomas's comparative youthfulness is that it serves to emphasise the catastrophe of Lear's madness. The boyish galloping comes back in the mad scene and presents us with a different sort of pain - embarrassment for a man barely beyond the prime of life making a spectacle of himself. His lunacy, too, has remissions - the great sexual denunciation of the 'sulphurous pit' seems fuelled by a deep memory still felt directly in the loins. Most powerfully, Thomas' delivery of 'I know thee well enough' to the blind Gloucester is a moment of noble lucidity when, for a moment that is both terrible and hopeful, the dementia drops quite away.

But as a whole the production does not have enough similar illuminations. It is straightforwardly and clearly delivered but perceptual surprises are few, either verbally or visually. Designer Ellen Cairns' sharply raked disc is a suitable vehicle for such precipitous action, but the long red ropes hanging from above as a kind of cage are only sporadically effective, and their continual belaying an irritation. They hold a loose white canopy which descends to envelop Lear in the storm scene, an idea that must have looked better in the mind's eye than in practice.

Elsewhere, the show is frustratingly erratic. The play's sexual preoccupations are brilliantly set off by the way Karl Collins' Oswald places a red cushion to establish the household of the lascivious Goneril; but then Poor Tom's bawdy babble is accompanied by ludicrous pelvic thrusting. This is not among Talawa's best work, but it is clear and positive and was well received by a young and attentive audience.

Tonight at Nia Centre, Hulme, Manchester (061-227 9254); then on tour (enquiries: 071-404 5662).