David Neilson is preparing for 3 October, when he and a company of other acclaimed actors will perform a charity reading of King Lear at York Theatre Royal. He spoke to Lydia Onyett about the challenges of taking on the Bard under pressure.


David Neilson is in his living room, reading and re-reading King Lear. “It all began with George Costigan,” David remembers. “George works on Emmerdale with Freddie Jones, and one day asked him if he’d ever played Lear. He said he hadn’t and George just thought he really could, and really should.”

“George has tremendous energy once he’s got a bee in his bonnet and rang round various people, and I was one of the first to be rung. He’s also got connections with York Theatre Royal and the artistic director Damien Cruden said, ‘Why not do it as a charity event in York?’”

And so the project was born. On Sunday, a glittering cast including Nicholas Le Prevost, Toby Jones and Niamh Cusack will take to the stage and breathe life into Shakespeare’s tale of a king’s troubles and a father’s folly. All the actors are generously giving their time for free to achieve the twin aims of raising money for York Theatre Royal’s expansion into the neighbouring De Grey Rooms building and celebrating Freddie Jones’ long, distinguished career in theatre, television and film.

The theatre’s expansion will not only provide more rehearsal space, but will be used as a location for community workshops, readings and performances. In order to render the building accessible to all, a lift will be installed to allow the theatre to use it to its full capacity – a utility that comes with a price tag of around £50,000. Although other fundraising methods have contributed to the coffers, the money raised from King Lear will make leaps and bounds towards the final goal.

“We’re all showing up. It’s incredibly exciting,” David enthuses. “Of course, in Shakespeare’s day, the companies had very little time to put on a show, and I think we’ve got even less! We’ll come together on Saturday and familiarise ourselves with the script and each other over the course of an afternoon.”

Although the cast will rehearse for an afternoon, each actor has been putting in an enormous amount of work individually. David is relishing the role of the Earl of Kent: “Kent is a faithful old Labrador,” he says. “It’s only Cordelia, Kent and the Fool who really question Lear. When he divides his kingdom and Cordelia refuses to give him what he wants, Kent intercedes and is banished. But he’s almost part of Lear; he returns in disguise and acts as the king’s servant, and travels with him through the play.”

“Before George called me, I had thought of playing Gloucester," he admits, "but after looking at the play again I knew I wanted to play Kent. It’s a great part; there’s poetry, humour, two characters to tackle. The more you read, the more choices there are on the page. And Nick (Nicholas Le Prevost) will do a great job as Gloucester.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to tackle than just reading the script before Sunday evening. “You really have to get on top of the verse – there’s a reason why the RSC rehearse for months,” he says. “You have to be disciplined, you have to know when to breathe. And you also have to ferret out the meanings of each line. The further you go, the more excavating there is to be done: Shakespeare is like a cryptic crossword. But if it’s clear, lucid and alive for yourself, the audience will get it.”

His 13-year stint on Coronation Street takes up much of his time, but King Lear offers David the chance to work outside the world of Roy Cropper. “Roy is a cracking part, but if you play the same role over a number of years the characteristics become very particular and the role can feel more constrained,” he says. “With Roy I have to work hard to keep the part fresh, to keep it moving by making subtle changes in the same way we all change in real life. In some ways, to take on a whole new part is refreshing.”

“My job is kind of like disposable drama; I do a scene, I move on, I forget it,” he continues. “But rehearsing for Lear is similar in some ways – with Roy, I can make the choices and little touches that occur to me in my living room before discussing them in rehearsal. This project is kind of like that but with something mammoth! Shakespeare’s plays aren't classics for nothing, and I love this kind of challenge.”

The reading is a one-off performance and will be recorded for radio transmission at a later date. David, however, is hopeful that the company will regroup in the future. “It’ll be a cracking evening for an audience, and I really hope it gives us an appetite to meet up again and for something more to come out of it.”

King Lear will be performed on Sunday 3 October at 6pm at York Theatre Royal. Tickets can be booked by calling the Box Office on 01904 623568 or online at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. All proceeds will go to York Theatre Royal’s Access for All Fund. Donations can be made by visiting justgiving.com/ytrteam.