Theatre reviews: King Lear, Uncle Vanya, Romeo and Juliet

David Ganly as Vanya in the West Yorkshire Playhouse's production of Uncle Vanya. Picture: Anthony Robling
David Ganly as Vanya in the West Yorkshire Playhouse's production of Uncle Vanya. Picture: Anthony Robling
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King Lear, Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, reviewed by Nick Ahad ****

For decades Barrie Rutter – now OBE – has stood on the stages of Yorkshire and delivered with bombast and not always with subtlety, the lines of the greatest writer that ever drew breath.

Hopefully he won’t want to break me across the coxcomb – as he sometimes does – for commenting on the occasional lack of subtlety. It’s true. If you want subtle, you don’t want Broadsides.

Here Rutter is a revelation. His Lear, a part he has played once before, is utterly, hearbreakingly, poignantly human. The bombast is all but gone. As he divides his kingdom between his three daughters his anger rumbles, but never explodes. He seems a tired king.

Director Jonathan Miller calls King Lear Shakespeare’s most interesting play and while this is an ensemble piece, the backbone is absolutely Rutter’s performance. Although it is an enormous part, it feels strangely smaller than you might remember. It’s because whenever Rutter is off the stage, his presence is felt and you are waiting for him to return – his absence from the stage is as much a part of his performance as when he is on it.

Around him Catherine Kinsella’s Cordelia is beautifully delicate and Fine Time Fontayne is a darkly ominous fool. The rest of the cast are good, but this is a play all about Rutter’s Lear.

• To March 7.

Uncle Vanya, West Yorkshire Playhouse, reviewed by Yvette Huddleston ****

Chekhov’s classic tragi-comedy gets a wonderfully fresh treatment in Mark Rosenblatt’s impressive production.

Samuel Adamson’s specially commissioned new adaptation is true to the original while bringing a sprightly 21st century sensibility to the story. What is most pleasing is the way in which the script brings out the sly humour in Chekhov’s writing – the playwright has a bit of a reputation for doom-laden Russian melancholy but he knew how to write a funny line. That’s not to say this is a happy tale.

It is essentially about a group of people who are stuck – unwilling or unable to change their lives. (“Your life is the definition of a loose end” says Astrov to the bored and unhappy Yelena). It is also about missed opportunity, dashed hopes, unrequited love, misunderstanding and the need we all have to give our lives meaning and leave some kind of legacy. These are themes that will never be past their sell-by date – as long as human beings walk the earth they will continue to strive, make mistakes and fall in love with the wrong people. There are moments of hilarity, moments of heart-breaking poignancy and others that just catch you off-guard such as when Vanya speaks tenderly about his long-dead sister.

The cast all give fine, nuanced performances but David Ganly as Vanya and Ryan Kiggell as Astrov are particularly strong.

• To March 21.

Romeo and Juliet, Leeds Grand Theatre, reviewed by Stephanie Ferguson ****

No swords, no daggers, no poison and surprisingly no tears for these star cross’d lovers. Jean-Christophe Maillot’s version of the tragedy is pared-down and minimalist, devoid of scenery, the stark geometric set releasing the focus on pure, unfettered dance.

It’s visually powerful, flawlessly performed, but lacks the raw emotional clout of the Gable/Moricone production Northern Ballet audiences know and love. Artistic director David Nixon wanted to bring in something fresh for the company’s 45th year and this certainly showcases the dancers. The choreography is sharp as a Capulet stiletto, with slicing arms and stabbing legs; thrilling airs above the ground and repeated motifs with the hands: wringing in desperation, zig-zagging in play; interlocking with desire. When the Prokofiev score is at its most frenetic he also freeze-frames the action and slips into slow-mo to great effect.

Giuliano Contadini’s coltish Romeo, wide-eyed and love-lorn, switches nicely to lust, rubbing his face up Juliet’s proffered leg into a sizzling embrace. He and Martha Leebolt make a powerful combination, she compelling as she sheds her girlhood to discover the joys of sex.

Here Friar Lawrence, danced with stealthy grace by Isaac Lee-Baker, more trendy vicar than monk, is the guilty ringmaster running the circus of feuding Montagues and Capulets. The ensembles for the warring houses work well, full of bawdy venom, but the women’s metallic costumes look more Hollywood Oscars than old Verona.

• To March 12.