Star quality leaves the critics united in their applause

In the face of cuts have Yorkshire’s theatres got off to their strongest season start in years? Arts correspondent Nick Ahad thinks, possibly, yes.

It was a conversation with a theatre contact that made me pause for thought and wonder if this is the strongest start to an autumn theatre season we have seen in some time.

This contact said, in an idle moment, he had counted the number of “stars” Yorkshire theatre shows of the past month had been awarded by critics and noticed that we appear to be outranking the rest of the country by some margin. I haven’t the time or inclination to undertake such thorough scientific research, but what is interesting is that the contact pointed out Yorkshire’s strong start to autumn 2011 the day after I’d made a similar comment to a colleague.

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That this is happening in the wake of the most stringent arts cuts in 60 years makes it even more worthy of comment.

In the opening week of the theatre season there were premieres of Northern Broadsides’ We Are Three Sisters, The Go-Between at West Yorkshire Playhouse and Alan Ayckbourn’s Neighbourhood Watch. Had I reviewed all of them, what happened would have been put down to an aberration – one person being profligate with praise. That week, however, a feature writer and editor reviewed Broadsides and the Playhouse respectively, while I was in Scarborough. All three of us – without collusion – declared the shows we had seen worthy of five stars, and this is not an organ that hands out a full five with ease.

The productions kept coming – and so did the stars – and not just from us, but from all the critics. Othello in Sheffield, John Godber’s The Debt Collectors, One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show in Sheffield. Even the shows that didn’t earn an Orion’s beltful, were praised as strong pieces.

The latest addition to the constellation is King Lear, which premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse last night, with Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role. That he has waited 65 years to play the part is not apparent. That he has a total grasp of the language, stage and production, is obvious. His is not a desperate Lear, an actor finally getting his hands on a showboating role he has long coveted, but an actor entirely within a role, appearing to feel every single heartbeat of the character inside which he is trapped.

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This is an extraordinary Lear with masses to recommend it, but the twin facets that make this production stand apart, earning it all the stars that will be bestowed on it this morning, are the performance of Pigott-Smith and the direction of Ian Brown.

The artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse has rarely been better in this vast, sweeping, epic production in which he paints the most stunning stage pictures.

Lear is the Everest for older actors, and Pigott-Smith scales the peaks with a portrayal of a man losing his mind that is not grandstanding but heartbreaking. It is as though he experiences each moment on stage for the first time. Nothing about it feels “performed”, but instead, lived.

What most impresses is the moment where he is broken by the death of his beloved Cordelia and we see an empty shell of a man. Compare that with his regal entrance some three hours earlier and you realise you have witnessed a a journey, wrought out of an actor’s every fibre.

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It is a performance that drags you in: anyone who has cared for an elderly relative will feel the exasperation of the moments when they slip in and out of lucidity – Pigott-Smith takes for all they are worth those tiny flashes where he looks around with fleeting self-awareness and asks a daughter “who are you?”.

Matching Lear are the three daughters. Neve McIntosh and Hedydd Dylan are magnificently evil, muscular and masculine as Goneril and Regan, their seemingly boundless cruelty terrifying. Olivia Morgan’s wilful, noble Cordelia is perfect – it is as though her regality is tangible. It is quite something that all match Pigott-Smith’s Lear.

There are flaws – Richard O’Callaghan’s aged fool is difficult to watch, about as entertaining as an actual clown (not very) and James Garnon’s tight-jawed, gurning Edmund makes you wonder how he got not one, but two queens to fall for him. Those small flaws aside this is another five-star production, lending weight to the claim this is one of Yorkshire’s great theatre seasons.

King Lear runs until Oct 22.

In yesterday’s feature “Parents beware, failing to act your age is embarrassing, innit?” we inadvertently referred to Prof Clive Upton as Prof Paul Upton. We are happy to clarify this and apologise for the error.

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