theatre King Lear, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Paul Taylor marvels at some new slants on old characters, except for the very old one with the beard

Paul Taylor
Friday 29 September 1995 23:02 BST

With Macbeth mania currently sweeping the nation's theatres, Jude Kelly's main-stage revival of King Lear at the West Yorkshire Playhouse looks like a gesture of stubborn nonconformity. It quickly becomes apparent that the unorthodoxy is not confined to the choice of play.

Just how bracingly revisionist a reading of this work the production is going to offer first hits you in the scene that introduces the bastard, Edmund. In Damien Goodwin's eyecatching performance, this character loses all trace of the villainous, smoothly calculating machiavell of theatrical tradition. He's reconceived here as a young man in the throes of a farcically desperate and, at the start at least, not unsympathetic outsider-complex. Creating a mini chaos with his suitcases as he arrives, this stubbly, greasy-haired obsessive is soon installed in a bedroom where he practises committing suicide with a plastic bag and takes out his frustrations on a rag doll of his legitimate brother, Edgar.

Usually, it's this latter who is presented as the klutz, his clumsiness a token of his uncircumspect virtue. Here, though, Robert Bowman's excellent Edgar is initially the laidback one, descending on his sibling with a convivial bottle of brandy and even doing a joky little yawning/ vomiting mime when recalling how he'd had two hours' conversation with their father the night before. Being on the inside, he can afford the luxury of relaxed humour.

Keen to emphasise how much of the evil in the play springs from people who have been driven to it, this medieval-to-postmodern-look production also refuses to leave the credentials of the virtuous unexamined. With a Hitler hairdo and a fanatic demeanour, Michael Cashman's Albany stalks about, prayer book in hand, radiating grim, repressive piety. It's clear he's no moral support for Tricia Kelly's Goneril, and so you don't really blame her for turning to Edmund. There's a fine, blackly comic moment near the end when, in the staging, it looks as though Edgar might not show up for the climactic duel and Albany, with Edmund's sword pointing at him, is reduced to frantic pleas that the summoning trumpet should sound again.

Like the production, Warren Mitchell's Lear is much too busy to be truly affecting. A gesticulating, snowy-bearded, unmajestic baboon of a monarch who strips off completely in the storm scenes, he gives, to my eye, an obdurately external performance, unhelped by some of the staging decisions, like his having to drag in by the noose the corpse of Maria Miles's Cordelia.

At the end, with an invading, futuristic army catching the drained survivors unawares, you feel you've had some of your ideas about Lear valuably challenged. The recasting of Edmund as a distraught neurotic - climaxing in his virtual suicide as he draws his knife-pointing brother into a desperate embrace - is especially impressive. Curiously little, though, makes a visceral impact: Bowman's splendidly disturbed "poor Tom"; Alexandra Gilbreath's Regan, who starts to unravel brilliantly after the killing of Cornwall. What, by and large, you don't feel you've had is a shattering experience.

To 28 Oct. Booking: 0113 2442111

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