King Lear

William Shakespeare

Headlong Theatre

Young Vic

(2009)

Review by Philip Fisher

There is always a sense of anticipation at the prospect of a Headlong Theatre production directed by Rupert Goold. Whether it is a modern work or a classic, he will challenge the viewer's preconceptions, often to startling effect.

Goold seems to like to modernise his Shakespeare, shedding new insights, while accepting that at the same time something might be lost. He has recently presented unforgettable versions of The Tempest and Macbeth, raising hopes for this Lear that was first seen in Liverpool last year.

On this occasion, the updating of Lear to the present day does not eventually seem to make too much sense. While there are a number of great directorial touches and some of the characters can be viewed afresh, at times the modernity disappears as the play doesn't really support it.

The thrust set is overseen by a set of weed-ridden steps in a milieu that is apparently home to a set of Northern petty gangsters. Their leader is Pete Postlethwaite's Lear, a man whose kingdom is probably not all that large.

Even so, it causes family strife as loud, pregnant (one of those very clever touches) Goneril (Caroline Faber) and the excellent Charlotte Randle playing cruel, shallow fashionista Regan are happy to take their share and disown the poor old man. The glamorous Regan also bites off more than she can chew when she takes against Gloucester.

Both the earnest Amanda Hale and good-natured Nigel Cooke playing Cordelia and Kent respectively, are too honest and honourable for their own good, as a tragedy is set in train.

Like his King, John Shrapnel's Gloucester judges his own children's merits badly, suffering a fate so horrible that one opening night visitor fainted. Thereafter, the actor hit top gear, as the old man realised his own pitiful foolishness in trusting one of the evening's stars, Irish actor Jonjo O'Neill as wicked Edmund, rather than the faithful Edgar (Tobias Menzies).

This was also the period when Postlethwaite really came into his own, first in madness and then movingly recovering to recognise his old friends and the loyalty of his daughter, simultaneously forced to understand what he has lost through his attempts to prove the love and loyalty of his inconstant daughters.

The experiment with a modern staging illuminates the life and natures of each of the daughters but must otherwise be seen as one of this talented director's rare misjudgements.

With Goold, there will inevitably be memorable images to take away from a performance and the second curtain was one, as the warlike Cordelia returns to her home patch.

In addition, on this occasion he draws good performances from most of the key players, in an evening that eventually stretched to four hours, with a deserving mention required for Forbes Masson making a sympathetic and tuneful Fool.

Playing until 28 March