King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

It was almost inevitable that, having had such a resounding success in The Madness of George III , Nigel Hawthorne's next role would be that of King Lear. However, he could scarcely have expected to be playing the part under a Japanese director on a noh set with a Japanese Fool by his side.

Yukio Ninagawa's production tries to balance the contrasting techniques of Japanese theatre, with its emphasis on story-telling and physicality, and the British Shakespearean tradition, with its reliance on verse-speaking and the power of the voice. But, despite some good touches and atmospheric music from Ryudo Izaki, this balancing act doesn't really work.

Hawthorne's Lear is an introspective creature. From the start - where he treats the questioning of his daughters as a huge joke - it's clear that this is not a man given to sudden fits of temper. When Cordelia is not as effusive as he wants, he can scarcely allow himself to be angry with her. And when cast aside by his daughters, he can scarcely summon up the words to curse them - the curse of darkness and devils is almost whispered in a soft monotone.

This leads to a storm scene of amazingly low intensity. There are no blowing hurricanes here. Rain is represented by falling sand with a few tumbling rocks thrown in for good measure - the result resembling a wet weekend in Skegness at best. With no storm to rail against, Hawthorne can scarcely shout his defiance of the elements.

This low-key performance makes nonsense of the doctor's speech that his great rage is passed. If this Lear had been raging, it must have been in a fleeting moment in the night when everyone's back was turned.

Unfortunately, productions of King Lear stand or fall by the power of the central character and Hawthorne's insipid playing detracts from what good performances there are. Michael Maloney makes a noble Edgar and there are sympathetic performances from John Carlisle as Gloucester and Christopher Benjamin as Kent. Sîan Thomas is an excellent Goneril - half Lady Thatcher and half Lucretia Borgia, she oozes malevolence.

As Edmund, William Armstrong is too much the pantomime villain to be really effective and Anne Chancellor's Regan rather garbles her lines. The worst offender, however, is Hiroyuki Sanada's Fool. One of Japan's leading actors, this was his first English-speaking role and, unfortunately, his English wasn't up to it - only the odd word was intelligible.

But casting Sanada in one of the main parts is indicative of the faults of this production. The impetus for this play seems to have been Anglo-Japanese co-operation; after all, how many productions boast a programme note from Tony Blair? It might have done wonders for the companies that have sponsored the production, but it leads to an unhappy night. It's not so much a noh drama, more like a real no-no.

Maxwell Cooter