King Lear (4 stars)

David Hayman heads an impressive ensemble cast in a gripping production of Shakespeare's play

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King Lear

Incredibly, it’s 33 years since David Hayman appeared in a Shakespeare play at the Citz, and his casting here, as the Bard’s aged monarch, raging against the dying of the light, provides a link to that spell in the 1970s-1990s when the Glasgow institution was the enfant terrible of European theatres. Fast-forward to 2012, and when the lights go up on the set for Dominic Hill’s production to reveal a sparse stage stripped back to expose the wings and a black-painted back wall, it seems a respectful nod to that controversial and innovative period in the theatre’s history.

But Hill’s bleak production is no mere homage or retread; in its depiction of a society let down and abandoned by its rulers it feels chillingly modern. Hayman is a commanding presence, sustaining a gradual build-up of anger that explodes in the storm scene on the heath, but, while his body is often taut with suppressed rage in the opening scenes, his performance never feels like the kind of howling, arm-waving grandstanding that can drive away an audience’s sympathy. In the second half of the play the veteran actor’s haunted look conveys the desperation of recognising one’s own deteriorating sanity while the anguished repeated cry of ‘never’ as he absorbs the tragedy of Cordelia’s death is shattering.

Hill has done a superb job in marshalling his large cast, which includes a number of compelling supporting performances, most notably from Paul Higgins as Kent, Tony Cownie as Oswald and Owen Whitelaw providing relief from the gathering darkness as the Fool. With students from the Royal Conservatoire swelling the ensemble and austere design by Tom Piper that’s complemented by Ben Ormerod’s stark lighting and an analogue soundtrack created mainly from struck piano wire by Paddy Cunneen, there’s the sense here of every branch of the company uniting around a strong vision to create a production that is as gripping as it is poignant.

King Lear runs at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 12 May.

Conversations with David Hayman and Dominic Hill - King Lear

King Lear

Shakespeare's mightiest play features a storm, a tragicomic sidekick, a charming scumbag, evil sisters, not one but two good men betrayed and a scene where a character gets his eyes gouged out. It also has one of the greatest and toughest title characters ever. Returning to the Citz after 33 years' absence, David Hayman…

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