After sitting for three hours in the depths of winter, watching an infamously morose Shakespearean tragedy like King Lear, a stiff drink and a double dose of happy pills would normally be the required aperitif.

But in the same way the RSC injected darkness into the great Bard's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream back in March, this English Touring Theatre production has infused a hoary, rambling piece of gloomy English literature with light heartedness and optimism. And where as the previous experiment failed, this one is a spectacular success, producing a breathless evening of gripping theatre.

This tragedy starts with Lear, King of England, dividing up his realm between his three daughters. Before he hands over authority to his offspring, Lear asks each to voice their love for him. While Goneril and Regan give sugary and sycophantic replies, Cordelia remains silent, for she loves her father more than any words can express.

After offering her several chances to speak forth her affection, Lear erupts into the first of his many vitriolic rages. He orders Cordelia's land to be divided up between her sisters - a decision that sparks the disintegration of law and order, usurped by a chaos that swarms with jealously, treachery and brutality.

Played out on a large wooden dais, overlooked by a large gleaming white wall - which mirrors the production's optimistic bent - with a single doorway set in the centre, this production shuns fancy effects and gimmicks. Instead, the art and expression in Shakespeare's language is left to work its magic.

As King Lear, Timothy West gives a sensational performance, playing on the complexities of his character like a master musician. The way he moves from raging ruler, to melancholic madman, to the broken and remorseful father is one of the finest demonstrations of professional acting I've seen in a long time. The intensity and emotion of his reunion with Cordelia towards the end of his life is enough to put a lump in the throat, while his skilled reading elicits mirth in the most unexpected places.

The rich tapestry of characters is brought to life in expert fashion by a talented cast, and I can't really fault any of the performances I witnessed on the opening night. Playing the Earl of Gloucester, who goes from being booming and regal to blind and helpless, Michael Cronin performs with great skill and subtly. As Edmund, Gloucester's intriguingly ambitious bastard son, Dominic Rickhards is perhaps not quite nasty enough. His performance is, however, insidious enough to make you want to boo and hiss whenever Edmund begins confessing his evil intentions.

Garry Cooper cuts a memorable swathe as Kent, helping elicit some of the biggest laughs of the evening while disguised as a humble manservant. As The Fool, David Cardy makes good sport in a part that will always raise a chuckle, although his clever riddles were often distorted by the music from his instrument. Credit also to Rachel Pickup for her gentle and poetic portrayal of Cordelia, an effective and dramatic contrast to her two cold, heartless sisters, played with confidence and measure by Catherine Kanter (Regan) and Jessica Turner (Goneril).

Speaking of distortion, it was quite a strain to hear the dialogue during the storm scenes of Act II. My gut instinct was careless production, but after discussion with my companion for the evening, we agreed it helped portray the madness raging within the King's seething mind. The same goes for the metallic sounds that come splintering out between scenes. You can hardly call it music and some may find it disruptive and annoying, but on reflection it helps emphasise the discord clanging around inside Lear's head.

This production is a big triumph for director Stephen Unwin, who has worked wonders by striking out 250-odd lines of repetitive or incomprehensible chaff. The result is a lean, mean, well-oiled piece of drama that reaches out, reels you in, and doesn't let you go until the lights go out on the final scene. Unwin also deserves praise for slipping so many humorous moments into this production. Rather than dilute the tragedy, his direction renders the terrible events that unfold so much more profound and hard to bear, as the audience recalls the laughter the dead once shared.

Those who think Shakespeare to be difficult to understand, boring, irrelevant, or a combination of all of three, simply must see this production. The actors handle the dialogue with great skill and confidence, nurturing real feeling and meaning from their lines, which makes for easy comprehension. Yes, the second Act does drag a little, but thanks to Unwin's careful cuts and pacey direction watching this two and three quarter hour production never becomes a chore.

As for irrelevance, nothing could be further from the truth. Lear's aside to the blind Duke of Gloucester - "Get thee glass eyes; And like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not" - rings as true today as it when it left Will's pen 400 years ago. The play also deals with family feuds, inheritance spats, war, corruption, murder, betrayal, greed and rampant immorality; issues that are very much part and parcel of modern life in Britain.

But far from leaving you on a low, there's great hope and optimism to be gleaned from the final lines of the King Lear, as two of the play's more heroic and decent characters are left to restore order. This, coupled with the thrill of seeing Shakespeare at its very best, clearly delighted a large first night audience whose thunderous applause elicited three curtain calls from West and company.

That's high praise indeed from an Alhambra audience, but this outstanding production certainly deserves it.

Copyright J A Waddington 2002. For syndication rights, please email.

Venue: The Alhambra Theatre, Bradford
10th December 2002
Rating: 5/ 5
Reviewed by:
Alex Waddington

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