A LETTER FROM LONDON: Jonathan Pryce in King Lear, the Refurbished Bristol Old Vic, Josie Rourke's Donmar Slate

By Ruth Leon
01 Oct 2012

Jonathan Pryce
Photo by Keith Pattison

The old saying goes that if you're old enough to play King Lear, you're too old. When asked for advice on how to play the mad king, Sir John Gielgud, the greatest actor of a generation stuffed with great actors, used to say, "Find a small Cordelia" — referring to the last scene, when Lear has to carry his dead daughter around the stage. The fact remains that every actor who reaches a certain level of distinction and fame wants to top off his career with Lear, just as every actress aspires to one day play the title role in Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. This week, on subsequent days, we had both. And the following day we had Chekhov's Three Sisters, but by that time we were all too classic-ed out, so that's another story.

It is Jonathan Pryce's turn to tackle the old reprobate, and he gives a brave turn. On a fine, stony set by Tom Scutt that makes the best use of the Almeida's bare walls, Pryce never for a moment asks for our sympathy nor, even in Lear's extremis, becomes anything but a tough old boy determined to have his own way. Not, perhaps, one of the great Lears, but a strong contender.

Over at the Old Vic, though, we may have one of the great Heddas. Sheridan Smith, who at first glance is too delicate and charming for the feisty, dissatisfied Hedda, is, even in her first scene, the tamped-down virago Ibsen clearly intended. This is a Hedda whose only concern is for herself, whose indifference to her husband, his aunt, her friend and her competing lovers takes the audience's breath away. They see her beauty, her almost permanent smile, her smug confidence, her manipulation of others. Only gradually do they see her hollow centre, her intrinsic timidity, her conventionality, her inability to commit even to her own life. It is finally clear why she has married the dull, academic George (fabulous Adrian Scarborough) and why she is unable to turn her crippling boredom into a real life. This is a masterful performance, exposing much that is usually hidden within this great play and, fine though it is, she couldn't pull off so many layers of character and form had she not the finest supporting cast it has ever been my privilege to see in these characters.

Every part of Anna Mackmin's production, from Lez Brotherston's beautiful, light-filled set to the darkness of Hedda's casual cruelty, fits perfectly into a satisfying whole rarely experienced within such complexity. Brian Friel's pellucid writing forms the scaffolding on which this great production is suspended. As soon as it was over I wanted to go back into the theatre and see it again. And I fully intend to do exactly that.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)

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