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.

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