It has been more than 20 years since London has had a full-scale production of Shakespeare's ``King Lear.'' Not since Paul Scofield's definitive performance in Peter Brook's 1962 production at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has Britain seen a major actor in this most demanding role. Now, in a season surprisingly devoid of Shakespeare at the RSC's London headquarters (although the return of last season's ``The Merry Wives of Windor'' is imminent) it has been left to the more pluralistic National Theatre to stage the Bard.
With an ambitious leap into its second decade on London's South Bank, the National has opened a confident and clean-lined new ``Lear.'' It marks the return of actor Anthony Hopkins to Shakespearean roles after decades of film work as well as the Shakespearean directorial debut of playwright David Hare. While critics here are divided over Hopkins's bellowing, bullying Lear, few deny the strength of this production, in which the visual aspect takes an appropriate - and in this age of growing theatrical spectacle - a wholly welcome back seat to Shakespeare's verbal magic.
The production adheres to classical simplicity - an open stage and three giant sky cloths that twist and billow, geometrically shaping the playing space. Across this Spartan landscape, Hare moves the characters peopling this ancient myth with the confidence of a veteran chess master. The relationship between the brothers Edmund and Edgar, among the sisters Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia, and, of course, the parallel tales of the two elder statesmen Lear and Gloucester are told cleanly and with a minimum of fuss. As a result, the play's indigenous moral power is allowed to build unadorned.
Indeed, it is this moral force that Hare has chosen to illuminate, rather than the play's potential for exploration of irrational good and evil. As the plot carries the characters from the hierarchy of fixed values - political allegiances and familial loyalties - the ontological agony of this ``Lear'' results from warring, misguided human wills rather than a pitiless pagan world.
In concert with this directorial concept, Hopkins charges on stage with fists flying. This is no Lear in the flickering twilight of a career, but a grizzled bull of a man who stamps and growls his commands and entreaties. His relationship with his daughters is characterized by a fierce give and take. When Lear first curses them, Goneril (Anna Massey) cowers while Regan (Suzanne Bertish) drives her father back across the stage. Until the play's final heart-rending moments, there is little sense that man's actions are outside his own control.
Hopkins's hunched and darting moves are those of a boxer; a man in aggressive and nearly constant combat; a king unprepared to relinquish his powers. Hopkins's delivery, which seemed reminiscent of his fine, forceful work as the tyrannical newspaper magnate in last season's ``Pravda,'' consists of short blasts of speech that bespeak both a king's power and the wheeziness of age.
Michael Bryant's disciplined portrayal of Gloucester is as much a deliberate foil to Hopkins's Lear as the result of his own character. His Gloucester is a philosopher who responds to the growing moral chaos with cool reason. The blinding scene, which in this production has Gloucester lashed to an overturned chair, flopping as feebly as a fish, is nearly unbearable to watch.
Roshan Seth's portrayal as the Fool is also one of reasoned accountability - an asterisk to Lear's increasingly irrational behavior. During the heath scene, brilliantly lit by Rory Dempster, Lear embraces his Fool for the first time, indicating not only his ``turning wits'' but also his altering affections.
In that barometric moment this Lear is shown to be one who grows saner as he grows mad. During the production, Hopkins abandons his forced bluster and embues his performance with nuances that illuminate Lear's more human side. In the final scene Lear is a broken man, seated at a rough wood table upon which is stretched the body of his daughter Cordelia. The scene is wrenching in the most elemental human terms. Clutching her still warm hand to his head, Hopkins sobs out the five ``nevers.'' It is a poignant elegy to this most comfortless of Shakespeare's kingdoms.