King Lear at the Old Vic

They're the hardest-working theatre company in London and they're nearing the end of what looks like their last ever season. Or at least the last season, almost certainly, for the Peter Hall Company at the historic Old Vic, which has been put on the selling block for £7.5m.

But what a season. It's included a rumbustious Provok'd Wife; an acclaimed, Broadway-bound Waiting For Godot; and now, running for some three-and-a-half hours, the company offers its take on Shakespeare's doomed royal family.

Like Godot, this King Lear features the talents of Alan Howard, regarded by many as the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, who's having his most productive period for years. Lear is a loser and an unsympathetic one at that. Howard's best work has been as a winner or as a tragically heroic loser so Lear presents him with a challenge.

Peter Hall's production hints in the first scene that Lear's bad relationship with his daughters is rooted in incest-style child abuse. There must be some excuse for the such hellish wrath as this. But however misguided and unsympathetic Lear may have been at the opening, we're all wondering what he's done to deserve such dreadful daughters as Goneril and Regan. At last, we start to care for him.

Hall's is a strong company. Of particular note is Alan Dobie's Fool, played with a shock of white hair and beard but rendered nimble, witty, and wise with his word play. Of the daughters, Anna Carteret s Goneril comes off better than Jenny Quayle's Regan, whose transformation from merely unpleasant to downright scheming by Act V seems sudden and inexplicable; while Victoria Hamilton s Cordelia makes a credible victim. Denis Quilley is very effective in creating a sympathetic Gloucester, setting up a blinding scene that's more than just horrifying, while David Yelland's Kent is an enigmatic character who's doomed at the end, though still standing.

Though a strong production, this Lear ended on a slightly sour note with a lengthy and unconventional final scene which prolonged the piece unnecessarily and prompted some surely-not-intended titters from the stalls.

Many critics have compared Howard and Hall s Lear unfavourably with the triumphant production featuring Ian Holm which has just finished at the National. While comparisons may be inevitable, this Lear at the Old Vic is still a high quality production and certainly worth seeing, if only to witness a fantastically gifted company at work, perhaps for the last time.

Roger Green, September 1997