A SENSE of occasion hardly begins to describe the tingling mood of anticipation at the Citizens’ Theatre, on the opening night of the show that marks David Hayman’s return to classical theatre on the Citizens’ stage, after an absence of more than three decades.
In his early sixties now, Hayman takes on the mighty role of King Lear, the old man who in a moment of rashness hands over all his earthly power to his two oldest daughters, while rejecting and banishing his third girl Cordelia, who will not echo their insincere protestations of love. Yet in truth, Hayman remains what he always was – an actor stronger in the prowling eloquence and power of his slight, wiry body than in any other aspect of his art; and not a great exponent of Shakespeare’s verbal poetry, so much as a dancer born to act out the heart of his drama in gesture and movement.
Tom Piper’s design sets the action in a contemporary yet timeless landscape haunted by street-dwellers whose presence hints at huge social inequalities, and a savage battle for power and resources between warring generations.
It’s through this divided and frighteningly recognisable society that Lear must descend to the lower depths of want and despair, as his vicious daughters reject him; and around him, the neutral quality of the setting unleashes some stunning performances in Dominic Hill’s fine production, notably from an electrifying Kieran Hill as Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund, and a spine-shiveringly eloquent Paul Higgins as the loyal nobleman Kent, who accompanies Lear in his exile.
In the end, of course, the play belongs to Lear; and Hayman makes a fine, visually eloquent job of conveying the hard-edged pathos of the play’s final scenes, when Lear recovers his sanity, is reunited with Cordelia, and then loses her, in a final crushing grief.