The role of Lear is an enormous challenge for any actor, and many greats have failed to make it their own. But in the Royal Exchange's production, Tom Courtenay does, with subtlety and sensitivity.
His Lear is clearly a shadow of his former self: we do not see a great deal of majesty or authority, but when we do, it is delivered with great conviction, such as when Lear disowns Cordelia at the beginning of the play or curses Goneril towards the end. Here we feel his great rage and understand from where this mighty king has fallen. Where Courtenay really excels is in showing Lear's frailty and humility. It is an unusual approach to the role, but terribly touching, especially in the final scene where Lear carries in the body of his dead daughter, Cordelia. This is tragedy at its most moving. Shakespeare's device of presenting Lear as more childish than his children and more foolish than his fool is really brought home by Courtenay's tenderness.
And what a fool we have in Ian Bartholemew. His initial bravado and confidence as he challenges and teases Lear slowly disintegrates into fear as Lear's own situation deteriorates. David Tennant as the wounded Edgar also delivers an accomplished performance of considerable depth.
But still, though Gregory Hersov's production builds in intensity as it progresses, it never quite scales the heights of greatness. The famous storm scene simply does not work: we do not get enough sense of the storm's strength for it to work in harmony with the potent emotions of the characters. However, the overall production is pacy enough to carry the audience along at a time when most audiences are not used to sitting through three-hour productions. There are so many costume changes that you pity the poor dressers and the wardrobe department - but even if the multiple changes don't add much to the action, many of them do look wonderful.
King Lear is a story of wisdom and foolishness, of lies, greed, ungratefulness and the ultimate destruction. It deals with the breakdown of family values in a way which makes your average gritty 90's drama look like a walk in the park. What this production ultimately leaves you with is a sense of the utter futility of evil.