Monday, 30 November -0001


This King Lear is a mighty presence who carries a whip – and uses it

Written by Georgina Brown
georgina-brown 2805For a young actor aiming for greatness, Hamlet is the first big test. In 1980 I saw Richard Eyre's electrifying production of Shakespeare's tragedy up close and personal at the Royal Court. A tall stripling with a shock of dark hair played the procrastinating prince, quite literally possessed by the ghost of his murdered father. Old Hamlet's reminders for revenge emerged from the pit of his skinny stomach. I couldn't believe my eyes or my ears. No subsequent Hamlet has ever made such an indelible impression.

The prince was Jonathan Pryce, who went on to dazzle in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker and the musicals Oliver! and Miss Saigon and has now reached the point in his career to assault the older actor's Everest: King Lear. Is he once again my best ever? He is up there with the greats but I think Ian Holm (again directed by Richard Eyre) – tiny, pink and vulnerably naked – at the Cottesloe in 1997 wins by a white whisker.

Like Eyre's, Michael Attenborough's approach is minimalist and uncluttered, allowing the tragedy to be unleashed at a terrific pace. Pryce is a towering, mighty presence and carries a whip he's not afraid to use. This is a man used to getting his own way as both a king and a father. There's nothing frail about this old man, making all the more preposterous and self-indulgent his statement that he is to divide his kingdom between his three daughters and 'unburthen'd crawl toward death'.

When his obvious favourite, Cordelia, refuses to gush about how much she loves him unlike her sly elder sisters (Zoe Waites and Jenny Jules are horribly good), he falls back into the throne, winded and clutching at his heart, as if he has received a physical blow. Having cast out Cordelia (Phoebe Fox makes this often namby-pamby part into someone to be reckoned with), he too is cast out by his 'tiger daughters' on to the heath. Not before he has cursed them, finished with a far from fatherly kiss on the lips. This suggestion of a sexual relationship, from which Cordelia has been spared, perhaps explains the elder girls' cruel treatment of their maddening old dad.

I've seen madder Lears but few more powerful. There are moments of startling humour perspicacity, and danger. He's well supported by Clive Wood's splendid Earl of Gloucester, Ian Gelder's loyal and kind Kent and Trevor Fox's canny Geordie Fool.

Until 3 November at Almeida Theatre, London N1: 020-7359 4404, www.almeida.co.uk

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