Joseph Marcell
Joseph Marcell

There's a faint suggestion of the period setting of Harwood's The Dresser in the1940s flavour of Jonathan Fensom's costumes and the audience-visible use of thunder-sheets in the storm scene. The plank and scaffold setting (with house lights scarcely dimmed for indoor theatre performances) adds to the deliberate semi-improvised flavour.

As a king should, Lear (Joseph Marcell) meets and greets his guests – we, the members of the audience – as they take their allotted places. There is much doubling of parts with the change of character signified simply by a piece of headwear or a cloak.

Bethan Cullinane doubles Cordelia and the Fool, both uncompromising truth-tellers who will ultimately pay the full price for their frankness. Sister Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield) and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat) are a neatly differentiated pair of harpies.

Daniel Pirrie's amoral Edmund at first runs as many rings around Alex Mugnaioni's bookish and initially naïve Edgar as he does around his father Gloucester (John Stahl) – you can see why, in his initial exchange with Bill Nash's Kent, Gloucester might express a secret preference for his bastard son over his legitimate heir.

Nash's no-nonsense Kent makes you see why his bluntness irritates and leads him into troubles, some of which he might well have avoided. As is the case with Cordelia, unsugared pills of veracity can be a bitter medicine. Lear also never really appreciates other people's viewpoint – why indeed, as an absolute monarch should he ever need to do so?

Marcell has the right sort of condescending dignity in the early scenes to make his later collapse a true, distorted mirror image. Stripped to white long-johns and with his diadem replaced by a wreath of hedgerow gleanings to resemble a crown of thorns, he rises after the storm scenes to real tragedy as he carries in the slaughtered Cordelia and, finally, finds personal peace.

Not all the thunder in the first couple of acts comes from stage effects; there were too many moments when shouting proved less effective than a lower volume might have done.

King Lear is at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds until 12 July.