During an air-raid in 1942, a touring tragedian gives his last and greatest performance as King Lear, playing to a packed house in a scruffy provincial theatre. As the sounds of bombs merge with the thundersheet, life imitates art.
As clear inspiration for the play, Ronald Harwood was Sir Donald Wolfit’s dresser, although he always denied dramatising his backstage life with ‘Sir’. Two decades ago in the title role on stage and screen, Tom Courtenay gave us what seemed the definitive Norman, a waspish, queeny theatrical, hands fluttering as he prompts the great man with forgotten lines, ready with tart comments but basically good-hearted, an affectionate offstage Fool to the great barnstormer’s Lear.
But for Peter Hall’s first major revival of the play, Nicholas Lyndhurst extends the character to reveal a bitter, secret boozer, smarting at slights, brutally cruel to a rival and prancing about in a shrill pet that should have got him sacked years ago. Only at the last does he allow himself to reveal his love for the dying man but then it is as much tinged by fear of unemployment.
In a great gift of a part Julian Glover, himself a titan of classical theatre, gives us a powerful portrayal of the actor-manager thrashing himself to conquer his demanding role, beautifully matched with Annabel Leventon as Her Ladyship in their dressing-room scene of self-analysis and aired grievances and touchingly capped by his brief, romantic moment with Liza Sadovy’s lovelorn stage manager.
Lovely stuff, a theatrical treat.