In many ways King Lear does what it says on the tin. It's a tragedy, there are a pile of bodies at the end and, to steal from another of the canon, it's chock full of sound and fury.
Lucy Bailey's new production places the action in the 1960's and gives a fresh take on the idea of territory and how it is split up and passed on. The opening scene, in the backroom of a pub, sets the tone for a more immediate, personal and energised Lear.
Both Goneril and Regan play the game of telling the old man how much they love him and they reap the rewards by getting the same substantial chunk of the territory. When Cordelia has nothing to say, followed by her honesty of loving him "according to my bond; no more, no less", we see our first glimpse of the fury to come in an explosive scene that ends with her being rejected by Lear and the remainder being split between the other two sisters and their men.
There are some startling choices in Bailey's production that give this King Lear the edge over many recent productions. There is an energy and intensity that makes it fly by; gone are the long, ponderous moments of reflection that so often hamper this play. In its place is an explosive dynamic that, once the fuse is lit in the first scene, ensures it gallops along at a cracking pace.
The production also benefits from some wonderful performances. Paul Shelley's Gloucester is a tower of strength and dignity, even in blindness. William Postlethwaite provides a wonderfully academic Edgar who transforms into a physically tortured Poor Tom, driven underground in order to remain alive. Also trying to stay alive yet remaining overground and in disguise is David Ganly's sympathetic yet powerhouse Kent who disguises himself as Caius. Juggling many bad situations, he is the one you want fighting in your corner.
The evening however belongs to David Haig. All too often, Lear is presented as the old monarch nearing the end of his life. Here, Haig focuses on the man and the father. This is the production's greatest strength. From a man losing his control quickly followed by a man losing his identity and family, this is not a showboat performance.
Haig embodies a man in crisis and this mess is never far from the surface, lurching from the life and soul of the party to the man alone and desolate, caught in the storm. Most powerful is his choice to spend the rest of his days in jail with Cordelia. No head pounding, no screaming, just a moment of clarity that everything will be OK: A father reconciling with his daughter.
There are elements that come dangerously close to derailing Bailey's production. The gratuitous 'phone box' scene for the villain of the piece is an unnecessary layer, as is the descent into soap-operatic screaming as the play moves towards its climax. And William Dudley's design, which relies heavily on screens and projected images, distracts rather than enhances. When the grand space of the Theatre Royal is used to its full extent, the production benefits from the bare walls and mechanics of the theatre. But the wavy screens and projected brick walls make you wonder why they don't use the actual brick walls just behind them.
Gloucester tells Lear early in Act One that he fears they have seen, "the best of our time". This production excels in showing what comes once the best has past. A powerful, energised, fresh look at King Lear with a stunning performance by David Haig at its centre.