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Michael Coveney: Pryce is right for low-key Lear

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Jonathan Pryce is a far more temperate actor these days than he once was, but that's probably because, like all of us, he's got a little older. But he's definitely had the edges knocked off him in a way that never happened to Nicol Williamson. 

His King Lear at the Almeida is a beautiful performance, but its anger is well under control, its execution as careful and detailed as it is memorable and moving.

Whenever I see Lear I always marvel particularly at the clifftop encounter between the blind Gloucester and his disguised son. I think it's the greatest scene in the whole of drama.

Last night was different. It was upstaged by Lear's final scenes in a wheelchair and with the dead Cordelia. The brilliance and perception of the writing as Lear loses a grip - "Where have I been? Where am I?" - amounts to the best portrait of memory loss and terminal decline ever put on a stage.

There had been clues to Pryce's Lear in the performance he gave in Athol Fugard's Dimetos at the Donmar Warehouse, another role once taken by Paul Scofield. Like Scofield, Pryce exudes a natural authority but unlike him can send it up at the same time - "aye, every inch a king" got a huge laugh last night. (That phrase had an unfortunate overtone in Ian McKellen's willy-waving RSC performance.)   

You sensed an enormous affection for him, too, as he received several ovations. Pryce's wife, Kate Fahy, and their sons, were in the audience, and so was Richard Eyre, who directed Pryce in his breakthrough performance in Trevor Griffiths' Comedians, and then his 1980 Hamlet, in which he famously regurgitated the words of his own dead father, at the Royal Court.

Eyre's left arm was in a sling. Why? He's broken his wrist on holiday in France. More specifically, he fessed up, he broke it by falling off Jonathan Pryce's bike in France. He was managing okay, though, just doing a little less cooking than usual.

Eyre is next up at the Almeida, directing Nick Dear's new play about the poets Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, after Lear ends in early November. It has the creative team and the casting you'd only expect to find in the subsidised sector.

Although the Almeida receives £900,000 a year from the Arts Council, most of its money is made up from the box office (£2m a year) and sponsorship (£1.3m). None of its commercial operation would be possible at all without the subsidised sector to start with. That's where all the talent comes from, the investment of the taxpayer.

So it never ceases to amaze me when right-wing critics, notably Quentin Letts, harp on about the Arts Council softies and their compliant audiences at places like the Royal Court and the RSC. That's where the energy and creativity starts and kindles the whole caboodle. Even West End musicals are directed and designed by people who begin in the subsidised sector, where the idea prevails, just about, that making theatre is something to do with idealism and art.

Michael Attenborough himself was in no position to run the Almeida without cutting his teeth at the old Leeds Playhouse, then the Young Vic and the Watford Palace. He also did a great job at Hampstead Theatre, and then as principal associate at the RSC alongside Adrian Noble.

He's a very good example, in fact, of a commercially minded impresario with the subversive instincts that characterise all good theatre. And once again, following his magnificent Measure For Measure here two years ago, he shows that the Almeida is a perfect space for Shakespeare, combining intimacy and epic potential in a comparable fashion to the Royal Court, the Young Vic or, as we've just seen with Calixto Bieito's Shakespearean mash-up, Forests, the Old Rep in Birmingham.
For now, though, all hail JP. It's almost forty years since I wrote a magazine feature proclaiming Pryce as one of six young actors destined for the top (the others included Zoe Wanamaker and Simon Callow). He was the most exciting actor I'd seen since Williamson when he emerged at the Liverpoool Everyman and then Eyre's Nottingham Playhouse.

He has since achieved great West End and Broadway success as the Engineer in Miss Saigon, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady and Fagin in Oliver!. But none of that would have happened without subsidy and, yes, the arrant idealism and political bloody-mindedness of the fringe and regional theatre (parts of it, anyway) in the early 1970s.


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