Theatre: Lear. Oh dear

FIRST NIGHT: Peter Hall has finally directed his first `King Lear' at the Old Vic. It wasn't worth the wait, says Paul Taylor

"O, Reeeeason not the neeeeeed": that's Alan Howard's Lear talking, or, rather, singing. This actor's airborne vibrato has long been as prominent a part of his professional equipment as her bust was to the career accoutrements of Jayne Mansfield. And as for that proud bridling neigh - well, the like has not been heard since the glory days of Champion the Wonder Horse. When Brian Cox's Lear made his final entry with the dead Cordelia, he broke your heart by delivering that famous line of Howell's not as an operatic expression of emotion but as a quiet, dazed command to the onlookers. How could they remain silent in the face of this enormity? Since then, quite a few other Lears have followed suit. Alan Howard is just about the last actor you could imagine taking that option.

I haven't had a Howard-problem. Why is it that I could be bowled over by his Oedipus and be left stone cold by his Lear? The Greek hero suits the actor's talents and austere, balding-eagle look because his sin is that of lonely intellectual pride. You can accuse King Lear of many things but being an intellectual is not one of them. Many of his lines have to burst straight from the gut.

Howard, however, seemingly can't help but send them on a detour through his brain; the effect is one of sardonically narcissistic descanting on emotion.

I had the same trouble with John Wood in Nicholas Hytner's version. Maybe actors who excel at Stoppard (and Howard was wonderfully funny in the National's recent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) are ipso facto disqualified from being truly moving Lears. It doesn't help that Peter Hall's production, which uses the leaner, tonally more unsettling Folio text, encourages the worst kind of old-fashioned staginess.

There's one striking coup when, in the storm scene, a streak of lightning splits open the back wall of the set, leaving a mobile fracture line that becomes the production's symbolic template. For the most part, if it were possible to put those old Marlowe Society LPs of Shakespeare on a stage, this is how they would look.

The postures the actors adopt remind you of the acting by numbers method that's parodied in Playhouse Creatures, another Hall piece. There, a Restoration actress explains how to express emotion by tilting the face to different clock hand positions ("shame at twenty to seven. Despair at five past twelve"). That's subtle by comparison with a lot of what goes on here. I can appreciate that in the Old Vic, you have to pitch things out-front a bit, but this strategy is pushed to near-parodic extreme. The result is a dismaying lack of innerness. It's not surprising that one of the performances that comes off best is that of Andrew Woodall's Edmund which pulls the audience into a cocky conspiracy against the rest.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

    £25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

    £25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

    £25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Day In a Page

    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m