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King Lear

William Shakespeare
Theatre Royal, Bath

David Haig is by far and away the best thing about this production of King Lear, currently enjoying brisk business at the Theatre Royal Bath. Quite a few critics who enjoyed his performance in The Madness of George III suggested his would be a Lear to savour, while Haig himself is on record that he wanted to tackle the part.

Not that we have been short of Lears in late. Last year saw John Shrapnel in action in Bristol and Jonathan Pryce in London, while the year before Derek Jacobi trod the boards at the Donmar. This year also sees Frank Langella at Chichester, while next year Simon Russell Beale will feature at the National Theatre.

So is Haig's performance worthy to stand among this august company? I'd say it is a pretty strong showing. Ralph Richardson likened performing Shakespeare to lying on your back and firing a machine gun at targets on the ceiling—you are bound to hit some. Haig is good on pathos, as one might imagine, but he is also strong on rage. And he also suggest that somewhere within is a thwarted compassion.

Unfortunately, this production reminds me nothing so much as Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice at the RSC a few years back when poor old Patrick Stewart as a traditional Shylock, was stranded in a Las Vegas casino complete with Elvis impersonator. Lucy Bailey, director of Lear here, transposes the action to 1960s gangland London. It's not a good move. 'Oh reason not the need', howls Lear, but I'm afraid one if increasingly forced to as the evening wears on. It adds nothing, it makes no sense, and it undermines Haig's Lear.

The only real beneficiary is Simon Gregor as the fool, who is entertaining as a Cockney cheeky chappie, though quite a few of his jokes pass for too little, but I'm afraid a lot of the speaking is indistinct. Which brings me to one of my bugbears about Bailey. She is a high-concept director, like Goold, and this is something that can bring Shakespeare, for some people, thrillingly to life. But in my experience of her work, too often as much work seems to have gone into the design and the staging than the text, which is surely the thing itself.

Bailey's staging of Julius Caesar at the RSC a few years ago also used projections, as here, and I felt then, as I do now, that the acting suffered. The staging is imaginative, the projections, of urban street scenes, underground car parking, are striking, but they are foregrounded when they should be merely supporting.

Among the rest of the cast, there is also good work from David Ganly as 'Caius'—Kent in disguise.

Theatre Royal Bath's ambition to stage productions like this, as well as new work in the studio, is to be applauded in these difficult times. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the results in this case.

Reviewer: Pete Wood