Howard plays the king, but Hall lacks authority; THEATRE

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It Opens well enough. First comes a crisp confessional exchange between Denis Quilley's barrel-chested Earl of Gloucester and David Yelland's tight-lipped, aristocratic Earl of Kent. Then the court gathers round a plain throne, with a ramp placed in front for the map. This is the first time Peter Hall has ever directed King Lear. This Old Vic production promises to be a brisk, no-nonsense affair: strong cast, basic designs and no frills, other than the Elizabethan ruffs.

Alan Howard sidles in, curling round the throne. Everything about him is on the downward slide: from the long nose, drooping eyelids and downturned lips to the lank hair that straggles down to his shoulders. With ankle- length cloak and high collar, he could be a glowering figure from an Eisenstein movie.

It's a magnetic opening: age has eaten into this Lear like a cancer. He pauses - fatigue? ennui? forgetfulness? - before dividing up the kingdom between his daughters. Goneril and Regan (Anna Carteret and Jenny Quayle) pay tributes and he kisses them each, lingeringly, on the lips. Then this doting father, a raffish emotional bully, discovers his youngest daughter, Cordelia (an earnest Victoria Hamilton), won't play ball.

If Howard's Lear starts old, he sheds years with each rebuff he receives from his daughters. With anger comes expansiveness, and with the increased range we reach the vexed issue of the Howard music. There is more melody in his delivery of "Oh, reason not the need!", "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!" and "Howl, howl, howl!" than you get in some blockbuster musicals. Bits of Lear's mental journey slide by in a warm emotional haze, like listening to an orchestral arrangement. In this respect, Howard stands four-square against the pacy, contained, conversational style of his contemporaries. To have seen Ian Holm's recent Lear at the National and then see Howard's at the Old Vic is to pit the modern against the Romantic.

Greg Hicks is a strong Edgar, as physically exotic, hiding in the hovel as Poor Tom, as was his mud-caked Tiresias in Hall's Oedipus Plays last year. He moves with energising precision from being a man unable to cross swords with his brother (he simply doesn't have a sword) to becoming a scampering painted wretch and avenging warrior. Alan Dobie's tricksy, juggling Fool, dressed in oatmeal jacket and string vest, brings on his own one-man show. And Stephen Noonan's shaven-headed, smilingly insolent servant Oswald never descends into camp.

Early on, there's a perfect moment in which Cornwall (Michael Gardener) cannot resist stepping forward and taking a closer look at the map, to see just how big a portion of the country he and Regan have been allocated. The disappointment as Hall's Lear progresses is that this sort of humane and illuminating touch becomes increasingly rare. The leading actors look after themselves, but the loss of ensemble detail is exposed painfully when spectators are central to a scene. At the blinding of Gloucester, there is no spiralling sense of nightmare, in which events take on a cruel momentum of their own. Almost comically, Cornwall stamps his boot on one of Gloucester's eyes and lets the other shoot out of his hand. Those not speaking are still implicated by their presence, yet we have little sense of their dilemma.

When Edmund (Andrew Woodall) confesses to us that he has sworn his love to Goneril and Regan, Hall puts the stage into darkness and Woodall into a spotlight. In the battle between the English and the French, strobe lights pick up silhouetted figures behind a backdrop. The Edgar/Edmund duel drifts into a vaguely slow-motion sequence with amplified breathing. The moments come over as piecemeal solutions. Except for his vigorous insistence on only using the Folio version, Hall's production lacks that quality that Kent spies in Lear: authority.

It's a short walk from the home of Peter Hall Company, whose tenure at the Old Vic ends soon, to (what might be termed) the Trevor Nunn Company, making its debut at the National. An Enemy of the People is Nunn's first production since becoming director designate (he takes over on Thursday). For this, he surrounds himself with ex-RSC colleagues; Ian McKellen, John Napier, Stephen Moore, John Woodvine and Penny Downie. No slouch, Nunn chooses a big-budget re-staging of Ibsen, opening out the action like a movie director. John Napier designs a backdrop of scudding clouds and dark hills, in front of which he places sections of a Norwegian seaside town and the ground floor of the Stockmann household. The Olivier revolve swivels round to reveal the printer's office and (after the interval) the public meeting. It also swivels round during scenes as the action moves from study to parlour to dining room. Nunn and Napier thereby introduce the fluidity of the modern musical into the unlikely world of 19th-century realism. With a brass band, Victorian gents in top hats and frock coats, and children scurrying round as if on loan from a Christmas show, Nunn gives us not only the Enemy of the title but the People as well.

McKellen's inspired portrayal of the moral Dr Stockmann, the man who discovers the water supply to the town baths is polluted, is of a trusting innocent, buzzing with intellectual energy. He grins, hugs and laughs, and even - at the public meeting - applauds his opponent. He can't sit down without shooting out his leg. The comic brio finds its foil with his damply Machiavellian brother, Peter (Stephen Moore, who looks like a puritan version of Benny Hill). McKellen's Stockmann is no politician. He moves from protecting individuals from pollution (where there might be votes) to attacking society in general (where there are very few). Nunn's fulsome production (using a new translation by Christopher Hampton) succeeds more in its breadth than its depth, placing Stockmann's heroically loopy individualism in a public context. The final images - as McKellen and family huddle high up in the prow of Napier's set - remind us that Ibsen wrote the epic Brand long before the claustrophobic Hedda Gabler.

The two plays in Blue Heart, Caryl Churchill's new double bill, are linked by profound suspiciousness. In the first, Heart's Desire, a husband, a wife and the husband's sister wait for the couple's daughter to return from Australia. The scene keeps restarting and turning out differently. The outlandishly funny results include entrances from terrorists, an ostrich and a busload of children. These three are engaged in their own version of Consequences. Bernard Gallagher, Valerie Lilley and Mary Macleod do a superb job at sustaining the tension in a piece that keeps returning to "Go". Max Stafford-Clark directs with remorseless precision. In Blue Kettle, 40-year- old Derek (Jason Watkins) is a con-man. He pretends to a series of women that he is the long-lost son they farmed out for adoption at birth. If that isn't disorientating enough, these intimate conversations are gradually invaded by two words - "blue" and "kettle" - which are substituted for more and more of the real ones (as in "it happened a blue many kettle ago"). Churchill introduces a great number of "blues" and "kettles" into the dialogue - shortening them to "bl" and "ket", and later "b" and "k" - without losing the meaning. It's a remarkable piece of kettle. And you can blue me on that.

`King Lear': Old Vic, SE1 (0171 928 7616). `An Enemy of the People': Olivier, SE1 (0171 928 2252). `Blue Heart': Royal Court Downstairs, WC2 (0171 565 5000), to 18 Oct, then touring.

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