Full marks to the Globe and its artistic director Mark Rylance. This season they've conceived an ambitious season of the Celtic plays: those pieces that touch on an almost mythical Britain, before the mediaeval historical plays. And what could be more ambitious than Lear? Nearly three and a half hours on the theatre's notoriously unforgiving wooden benches (or of course, standing) is an ordeal likely to win favour with the local osteopaths if no one else.
But in truth, this is a worthy effort, Barrie Kyle's production holds attention throughout; partly because it's taken at breakneck pace and partly because of fine acting. There have also been some interesting changes to the set - the galleries are bedecked with foliage and have small lights hanging off them, supposedly a more authentic recreation of the Globe's illumination. There is also a platform in the yard so the actors can speak from among the groundlings.
Julian Glover's Lear is a feisty, rollicking fellow, free from the cares of kingdom and ready to indulge in whatever devilry he sees fit. This is one sprightly lad, who has no difficulty carrying Cordelia nor - one imagines - any difficulty killing the knave that hanged her. What is missing is the slow descent into madness. The "let me not be mad" speech is uttered almost as an afterthought, with little sense that that is a real fear. Glover is, however, a magnificently raging Lear: his curse on Goneril, spat right into her face, is terrifying to behold, his is not a king to be trifled with.
There are other stellar performances as well. Emphasising his status as an outsider, Paul Brennen's Edmond delivers his opening speeches from the groundlings platform, and in so doing, plays on the audience's pity and immediately beguiles with his smooth talk and sly humour. This is right: Edmund must be attractive to win over Gloucester, woo the sisters and be believed by his brother.
And John McEnery is a blunt, northern banjo-playing Fool, like a Celtic George Formby. Joyously playing on his licence to entertain and criticise, his plain-speaking and sly songs (slightly unusually, none of the Fool's songs are cut) provide a musical counterpart to Lear's madness. There are also good performances from Patricia Kerrigan and Felicity Dean as Goneril and Regan, and from Geoffrey Whitehead as a gentle, inoffensive Gloucester.
A very good start then to the Globe's new season and, after last year's disappointments, let's hope it's a sign of good things to come.
- Maxwell Cooter