6 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 66


King Lear (Barbican) The Taming of the Shrew (Barbican Pit) 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (Young Vic)

Japanese lessons

Sheridan Morley Iseem to be missing something here: the hail of critical abuse which has fallen on the Ninagawa King Lear at the Barbican, not unlike the hail of stones which falls on the actors during the storm amid Yukio Horio's setting, seems largely based on the amazed discovery that Sir Nigel Hawthorne is not a heroic actor and that the priorities here appear to be somewhat Japanese.

As the production was rehearsed in Tokyo, opened in Tokyo, has a Japanese director, designer and Fool, not to mention a largely Japanese backstage staff, the objection is much akin to the complaint that Kurosawa's Throne of Blood is doubt- less a wonderful movie but somehow not quite Macbeth as we used to know and love it at the Old Vic.

I have to object that the wonder of this Lear is precisely that it does not corre- spond to anything we currently think we know about the play; from the moment of his casting, it was surely clear that Hawthorne was probably going to be con- siderably underpowered for the early part of the play; he would be no match for the storm even if it did not consist of falling boulders, and he is deeply unauthoritarian even when dividing up the kingdom.

But given the Japanese reverence for old age, and his own talent for portraying a mind diseased, it was also surely a fair bet that he would deliver in Act V a touching and heart-rending old man and this he unquestionably does. Indeed, I have never seen a Lear which ends better; instead of the usual exhausted old upfront thespian, staggering about the stage under the weight of his dead Cordelia, we get an almost Chekhovian revelation, as though the whole play has been leading up to this moment and not counting down towards it; similarly, Hawthorne plays the post-Dover scene with John Carlisle's equally brilliant Gloucester as if they were the tramps from Godot, adrift in a bleak landscape of the broken mind and awaiting they know not what.

True, it doesn't all work that well; it was unwise of Ninagawa to encourage Anna Chancellor and Sian Thomas to play Regan and Goneril like pantomime dames on speed, but as against that Robin Weaver is a wondrously still, serene Cordelia, and Hiroyuki Sanada an amazingly acrobatic Fool. What this King Lear usefully reminds us is that we don't hold the patent on Shakespeare, and that Japanese conven- tions and traditions, both social and the- atrical, can give us insights into the play we would never otherwise have learnt, The result is infinitely more moving than many bigger and some even better Lears; above all, it is mercifully never familiar or pre- dictable.

The fights, the music and the staging are all unexpected, sometimes weird to West- ern eyes and preconceptions, but often close to wonderful; for this Lear to work, you have to abandon all other theories about the play and go with the flow of a Japanese version which dwells on melan- choly and weary, gentle retreat rather than 'Take a letter, you fat cow.' anything more overt. It may not be entirely what Shakespeare had in mind, but then again who are we to say? This Lear may be played in English, but in every other sense it is really a translation; it comes at the play from curious angles, sometimes emphasis- ing the unimportant and missing the cru- cial; but it is never less than interesting, and we have a lot to learn by simply seeing a familiar classic in these very unfamiliar surroundings.

Of all the other major Shakespeares, it is now The Merchant of Venice, on account of its anti-Semitism, and The Taming of the Shrew, on account of its male chauvinist piggery, which always cause the most diffi- culty to politically correct directors and audiences alike. Brave, therefore, of the RSC at home to make a radical new stag- ing by Lindsay Posner of the Shrew their regional tour for 2000: after this week's opening at the Barbican Pit it goes to Strat- ford for Christmas and then sets off around Ellesmere Port, Middlesbrough, (Merton, Braintree, Penzance, Ebbw Vale, Barnsley, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Littleport and Barrow-in-Furness through June of next year, playing not in conventional theatres but in sports arenas, schools, leisure cen- tres and even church halls.

So the production has to be very flexible, minimally scenic and designed to appeal to audiences who seldom or never get to see Shakespeare locally; it also has to work with a cast of relative unknowns willing to spend the next six months on the road in often uncongenial surroundings. Given all of that, Lindsay Posner's production is close to triumphant; it uses Internet com- puter screens by way of scenery, goes for a vibrant theatricality closer sometimes to Kiss Me Kate than Shakespeare's original, and tackles the final, abject, embarrassing surrender of Katharine to her lord and master Petruchio by suggesting that she has suddenly decided to pay any price to get him into her bed. Posner's is a gimmicky gallop through a familiar text, neatly skirt- ing the minefields of modernity and assem- bling a cast which, if not exactly distinguished or experienced, is led from the front by two feisty performances from Stuart McQuarrie as Petruchio and Monica Dolan as Kate. This version also gives us the usually cut Christopher Sly prologue, which sets the whole story in the frame- work of a drunken dream, thereby further alienating us from the problems of chau- vinist reality and abusive manhood. Catch it if you can, as it makes its noisily simplis- tic but generally joyous way around the country over the next six months.

Two planks and a passion: that was the definition of theatre in the Middle Ages, and David Lan's dark, grainy, filmic redis- covery of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore at the Young Vic takes us right back to basics. The planks are those of Richard Hudson's minimalist setting, and the pas- sion is that of the greatest play ever written about the incestuous passion of a brother for a sister. Jude Law is in superb close-up as the obsessed Giovanni, while as his sib- ling and lover Eve Best, straight from drama school, makes what is far and away the most impressive London stage debut of the year. The rest of the casting is patchy, though Philip Whitchurch plays Vasques as if in training for the Iago he must surely soon give us; staged in a shadowy, sexy gloom, Lan's rich revival is a brilliantly inti- mate and immediate staging of a timeless classic.