Can't Say No

Actors don't say 'no' to Lear or Hamlet. The parts appear some sort of ultimate ... but ultimate what? Test, accolade, exploration of the human condition?

Paul Scofield once suggested that the heights of the play must be reached by parachute rather than mountaineering. I think of Ralph Richardson's dictum that playing a large Shakespeare part is like lying on the floor with a machine gun firing at a ceiling covered with targets - you're bound to hit some bulls-eyes. A strange analogy, but comforting (mind you, Richardson avoided playing Lear all his life). Anyway it's just a part in a play.

And is the play really that good? Lamb said it couldn't be acted, Thackeray was bored by it, Bradley said it wasn't his best play, and Tolstoy found it riddled with inconsistencies and poor motivations. I like the Howard Brenton plot summary - that you have a terrible family row and slam out of the house into the rain on Clapham Common: you shout at the rain for a bit, and then think - what am I going to do now?

Part of the Mental Landscape

Lear has been part of my mental landscape for most of my life. In 1955, my A-level set books were King Lear, The Winter's Tale, Chaucer's Prologue and Knight's Tale, and Tennyson's In Memoriam - serious stuff. And, of course, I've seen productions of the play all my life. I can think of ten, though there may be more. My father took me to see Donald Wolfit at the King's Theatre, Hammersmith, when I was 13. I remember that the set was a grey Stonehenge, that I believed Wolfit when he was being powerful and defiant but not when he was being weak and self-pitying. I later realised that Harold Pinter had been in the cast.

The first Lear I remember clearly is Gielgud's, directed by George Devine in 1956. But again my memory is chiefly visual, as the designs were by Isamu Noguchi, and though intended to be timeless, only succeeded in looking like outer space. Kent in the stocks had one leg thrust through what appeared to be a Barbara Hepworth sculpture. It remained as a grim warning to me about futuristic settings. Gielgud, imprisoned in a huge horsehair beard, seemed an archetype, a Merlin imbued with cosmic suffering and the wisdom of the ages. The verse speaking was consummate, and that is happily recaptured in a 1994 BBC/Renaissance audiocassette. There's something mandarin, perplexed, ironic about his Lear. It worked for him, but I think it's a dangerous model.

In 1959 I went to Stratford with an Oxford University outdoor production of Jonson's Bartholomew Fair. In the Memorial Theatre, it was the centenary season with Olivier as Coriolanus, Paul Robeson and Sam Wanamaker as Othello and Iago, Charles Laughton as Lear and Bottom, and a company including the young Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave. I stood at the back of the stalls to see Lear: those were the days when people camped out all night to get tickets.

Laughton had been thinking about Lear for 30 years, but in the first half of the play he lacked, as Michael Blakemore said, "the machinery for the huge rhetorical passages". Bewilderment was the keynote. His reconciliation with Cordelia was heartbreaking: I shall never see it better played. It was also the first time I realised the second half of the play takes place in summer. Glen Byam Shaw, the director, had great sheaves of corn and bright sunlight, a startling contrast to the action.

Peter Brook's Benchmark

Three years later, in 1962, I saw several times what has remained the benchmark production of my generation - the Peter Brook RSC production with Paul Scofield, a brooding, embattled dinosaur. It was a great performance, a great cast, a marvellous set, but Brook's interpretation was deeply troubling. Alec McCowen, who played the Fool, told me recently that he had prepared the part with great care, Brook had praised him after the read-through, and the next day had said "So, Alec, what are we going to do with this part?"

This starting from scratch, stripping bare, taking nothing for granted, is admirable. Brook, for example, insisted that Goneril and Regan's protestations of love for Lear, taken by themselves, sound perfectly sincere. But Brook cut two small but vital incidents, the comforting of Gloucester after his blinding by Cornwall's servants, and Edmund's deathbed attempt to save Lear and Cordelia. The common man and the villain were to have no redeeming features.

The Brook Lear was unremittingly harsh, and his 1971 film goes even further down this road. Scofield, robbed of half his lines, seems entrapped within a character who barely changes and has no journey. It is hardly an accurate reflection of his stage performance. Much has been made of the influence of Jan Kott's essay, King Lear or Endgame, but I think the production came out of a more general 1960s apprehension of an existential, absurdist universe.

There is a story that, when someone complained that they hadn't been moved by his production, Brook asked: "Where is it printed on your ticket that you should be moved by King Lear?" I was much impressed by this at the time, but since then, I have become uneasy. Surely, at some level, we should find The Comedy of Errors funny, and Titus Andronicus shocking? However, no one who saw Scofield and McCowen sit side by side on a bench while Lear said "O, let me not be mad", will ever forget it.

A Glut of Lears

In 1971, I saw Timothy West play a strong Lear for the Prospect company. Tim was only 37, and capitalised on this by playing him very energetically at the start. In the early 1990s there was a glut of Lears, and I saw most of them. First, Brian Cox, who was a crafty, wheel-chaired old devil, looking for humanity and humour at every turn. Deborah Warner, the director, turned the first scene into a wild Christmas party, where little sister wouldn't play and Santa Claus turned nasty. It was a bizarre solution, but it did emphasise the arbitrary way in which the wheel of fortune began to turn.

At the same time John Wood was doing it at Stratford for Nicholas Hytner - 20th-century clothes, and a very conceptual and unhelpful set. Wood, looking like a retired gardener in old corduroys, was highly intelligent and fiercely neurotic. Three years later Tom Wilkinson did it at the Royal Court in Max Stafford-Clark's farewell production. Tom, who was particularly young for the part, played him, as he told me, like Colonel Blimp, which worked well for the earlier scenes but then seemed to limit the descent into madness.

Finally, in 1994 at the RSC, I saw Robert Stephens, who was already subdued through illness, but was very real and moving in the second half. The same could be said of Laurence Olivier in Michael Elliott's 1983 television film. I thought both were rather too keen to be liked. In Richard Eyre's 1997 film version of his National Theatre production, Ian Holm is rivetingly autocratic and splenetic, and plays the madness with great inward and idiosyncratic suffering.

Clearly, you can play Lear in many different ways, each of which will reveal different strands in the play. But you can't play every single variation - a 'Variorum' performance, as Tynan said of Michael Redgrave's final Hamlet ("at times he seems to be giving us three different interpretations of the same line simultaneously"). At some point, you have to make up your mind and, at the same time, beware of tradition. You mustn't fall into the trap of thinking these are the only ways of playing Lear, or that certain things are immutable. You have to find your own Lear.

The above is extracted from Playing Lear: An Insider's Guide from Text to Performance, by Oliver Ford Davies who follows up his title performance last year in Jonathan Kent's King Lear at the Almeida King's Cross with Franco Zeffirelli's revival of Pirandello's Absolutely!! Perhaps, which co-stars Joan Plowright and opens at the West End's Wyndhams Theatre in May 2003.

Timothy West currently stars in English Touring Theatre's production of King Lear. It opens at the West End's Old Vic on 25 March 2003, following previews from 18 March and a regional tour. To WIN a copy of West's autobiography A Moment Towards the End of the Play..., click here.

Both titles are published by Nick Hern Books. For further information or to order copies, visit the Nick Hern Books website.