For all the noise and fury — the storm, really — at the heart of “King Lear,” Richard Eyre’s new Royal National Theater production of the play will be remembered for its moments of piercing quiet. That’s as it should be, given the production’s occupancy of the smallest National auditorium in a physical staging that divides the ever-mutable Cottesloe space no less decisively than Lear does his kingdom. (The play has previously been produced at this address in the Olivier, with Anthony Hopkins, and the Lyttelton, with Brian Cox.)
Eyre’s is an accordingly focused “Lear,” compressed but not diminished. If it doesn’t strike the knockout blows to the heart that one might wish, that’s because of a failure to attain the otherworldly, unnamable grief of which this play is uniquely capable. Still, with a memorable partner in pathos in the Lear of Ian Holm, this “Lear” is mightily of the here and now; you leave it impressed, if nonetheless aware that the play contains dimensions of pain that have yet to be disturbed.
The stillnesses are that much more unsettling when one considers the bustle with which Holm seizes the stage. Small and spry, never walking when he can scuttle, the actor presents a peppery, aspish monarch whose testiness is explicit from the opening test of affection he makes before his three daughters. Railing at Goneril as “a marble-hearted fiend,” Holm’s is a confrontational Lear — a feisty Napoleonic scrabbler — who isn’t beyond leaping upon tables to make a point. Indeed, so unpredictably irascible is he that for once those venal daughters have a point: Would you want such a man storming about your house?
His impulsiveness reaps dividends, notably in the hovel scene when Lear suddenly strips off to join ragged Edgar (Paul Rhys) in his guise as Poor Tom, a fellow “unaccommodated man.” Clasping each other for safety against a merciless cosmos, the two constitute a pitiful, almost bestial sight. They will soon be led — by the unsentimental Gloucester of Timothy West — from one wilderness and into another as part of a linked quintet of woe.
As he showed in 1992, returning to the stage as the bedridden patriarch in Harold Pinter’s “Moonlight,” Holm can roar with the best, but he’s also capable of a remarkable sense of implosion that he and wife Penelope Wilton later brought to Pinter’s “Landscape.” As Lear’s wits wane, both qualities come into play, alongside a growly attack on the verse that avoids being self-conscious. Late on, having become his own fool, he weeps into his garlanded hat, unable to stave off a sorrow that tends to catch him unawares. Talking at the start of “my sometime daughter,” this Lear fights back the very tears that surge up at the end, as his rending crescendo of “never”s comes to a choked, wracked close.
In performance terms, Holm offers a more pugnacious counterpart to the celebrated Royal Shakespeare Company Lear several years back of Robert Stephens, whose gifts for the piteous and the playful find their equivalent here. Eyre’s staging, though, is unlike most “Lear”s, falling neither into the Beckett-Jan Kott vein of Peter Brook or Nicholas Hytner nor into the specifics of Max Stafford-Clark’s Bosnian “Lear” in 1993. (Next up is Peter Hall at the Old Vic later this season, with Alan Howard.)
Where is this “Lear” set? Bob Crowley’s costumes suggest an anarchic fashion showroom, especially when Edgar re-emerges with his blinded father in what might be called designer-distressed white. The same disorienting hint of chic extends to Crowley’s minimalist sets, the red walls of which collapse into the rectangular playing area prior to a storm scene amid which only Michael Bryant’s muted, dryly funny Fool (the actor looks like one of Santa’s elves) doesn’t deliver the vocal goods.
Elsewhere, the acting can be startlingly fresh, Finbar Lynch’s dully cliched Edmund aside. Barbara Flynn and a well-coifed Amanda Redman are a sexually rapacious set of sisters who couldn’t be more at odds with the would-be Joan of Arc of Anne-Marie Duff’s Cordelia, whom Jean Kalman’s lighting at one point endows with a train of light. (Kalman gets his own showpiece, a slow-motion showdown between Edgar and Edmund that casts savage shadows on the far wall.) After a stagy start, Rhys makes an unexpectedly radiant Edgar, who for once is seen to supplant Cordelia as the play’s embodiment of good. David Burke’s hushed Kent emerges to wheel off the bodies at the end like an all-too-knowing Father Courage.
By that point Holm has long since reclaimed his position in the Shakespearean front ranks after several decades (a few film roles aside) away from the Bard. “Where have I been?” he asks, rising from a wheelchair minutes after Edgar’s murder of Oswald (William Osborne), as if awakening out of — and into — a nightmare. His question is one theatergoers will be wanting to ask of Holm, as the erstwhile Tony-winning star of “The Homecoming” finds in this most domestic of “Lear”s a safe haven home.