Chris Eldon Lee reviews Northern Broadsides’ “King Lear”, which is at the New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme until Saturday 13th June. 

The question is not, “Can Barrie Rutter do it”, but how does he do it? The answer is, ‘predictably’. So I’m afraid his Lear is just like his Prospero - with a bigger beard. 

I was full of admiration for his performance in the award winning “An August Bank Holiday Lark” last summer. He played the grumpy old bereft Squire with wonderful sensitivity and compassion. But give him a huge Shakespearean text and he seems to disappear behind his own glazed eyes. Drawing deep upon his own inner energies to conjure up the lines and reproduce his moves, he some how fails to relate to the rest of the cast. He’s like a marionette amongst men. 

This is a gilded Lear, sun tanned and gold clad, with air-guitarist hair. He wears a heavy quilted coat, which seems to weigh him down (and which he inexplicably removes in inclement weather). He creeps around the stage as if his shoes are two sizes too tight; none of which helps.      

He’s also very old school. His Shakespeare is perfectly clear but deeply declamatory. The venerable actor/manager does it how I’d imagine some of the pre-war greats did it. It’s only a handful of minutes to his first rant and they just keep on coming. There’s a long wait until we see anything of the inner man. 

I also got little sense of royalty. Rutter has more the air of a petulant mill owner having to deal with ‘trouble’ amongst an ungrateful workforce.  

It’s his company and he’d just received an OBE for running it. So he is empowered to do what he likes. But there were bearded actors on stage with greater naturalistic range; such as the excellently down to earth John Branwell – cast as Gloucester – and the world weary Andrew Vincent, who brings true humanity to Kent.  

But whilst director Jonathan Miller gets nothing new from his leading man, he does draw upon his Fringe heritage to unearth hidden humour in the play. The Fool is rarely funny to modern minds but the white-faced, red-hatted Fine Time Fontayne is smart enough to bypass that; his “bud-dum-tish” pointing up an obscure punch line.

Lear gets laughs too, telling Kent in the stocks to stay put. And Jos Vantyler turns Oswald into a classy comic turn; playing him as a gay, New Romantic with eyeliner, single earring and limp-wristed alarm. It’s an enlivening cameo.   

The blinding of Gloucester is a strangely effective affair – played deep in a brightly backlit entrance tunnel. I was one of the few placed to view the shadow play. Most of the audience could only hear it. In both cases Miller neatly dismisses the problem of staging the scene convincingly. The re-emerging, bandaged Branwell is a bloody shock and the tenderness of his suicidal scenes with his unbalanced son, Edgar, are a blessing.

In fact that whole triangular subplot almost stole the show, with a particularly fine portrayal of avarice by the recently promoted Al Bollands as Edmund.

At the very end, in his death throes, this Lear also finds tenderness. By the body of Cordelia, Barrie Rutter pines about his age and foolishness. He has elevated his Northern Broadsides Company into a national treasure. But his child has grown - and needs to find its own feet.    


3 Stars on Thursday 4 June 2015