This is the Lear for our time, the one we have been waiting for. Richard Eyre's production, with Ian Holm as the king, combines narrative clarity with psychological complexity, simplicity of staging with a miniaturist's analysis of the text. It is as gripping and swift-paced as a thriller. The only possible complaint is that many potential theatre-goers will be disappointed - the National's smallest auditorium holds a mere 300.
Yet, it is hard to regret the choice of venue. In Bob Crowley's traverse design the theatre is arranged with the audience on either side of a theatre-wide oblong arena so that no one feels far from the action.
When Lear first enters, family relationships are quickly established and we are all but implicated, so close are those ready-to-please daughters. Lear is a man used to being obeyed while deceiving himself that the fearful acquiescence of Goneril and Regan signifies love. Regan (Amanda Redman) he kisses full on the lips. Cordelia (Anne-Marie Duff), still the favoured child, skips to her place at the family table. Her truth-telling is the first step in her growing up.
Goneril (Barbara Flynn) and Regan soon put into practice the lessons in power-abuse learned from their father, but they are nicely distinguished. Goneril is imperious, but capable of emotion; Regan is psychotic (the roots of her disturbance perhaps in her father's over-familiar physicality). The putting out of Gloucester's eyes gives her perverted pleasure, all-of-a-piece with her sado-masochistic lust for Edmund. Goneril seems genuinely to love him.
Finbar Lynch's Edmund is not a hissable villain but an attractive, bitter, ambitious manipulator who gets out of his depth.
Ian Holm gives the performance of his life, speaking the verse as if it is newly imagined. Small, compact, white-bearded, his Lear is dynamic, irascible, childish, frightening, but frightened too. He fears madness, perhaps has chosen to relinquish his kingdom for this reason. His fears seem well-founded as anger causes him physical seizures during his long and terrible journey from moral and spiritual blindness to clear-sighted compassion. Naked in the storm, he discovers his humanity without losing authority. Michael Bryant as the Fool is his scruffy alter-ego. Lear even adopts his "cockscomb" or clown's hat and together they make a tragi-comic double act.
Tell your students to queue for returns.
In repertory. Tickets: 0171 928 2252