Brian Blessed: 'I look on Lear as an Everest, an adventure'

When Brian Blessed takes to the stage next month he marks two firsts; portraying the troubled King Lear on stage and performing with his daughter

Rosalind Blessed (Goneril) and Brian Blessed (King Lear) in King Lear
Rosalind Blessed (Goneril) and Brian Blessed (King Lear) in King Lear
© Matt Pereira

Brian Blessed plays King Lear in Guildford later this month, in a cast that also includes his daughter Rosalind Blessed as Goneril.

It marks the first time that Blessed, known for his trademark booming voice, has played King Lear on stage and the first time he has performed alongside his daughter.

Directed by Caroline Devlin for Guildford Shakespeare Company, with design by Neil Irish, lighting by Declan Randall and sound by Matt Eaton, the cast also features: Sarah Gobran (Regan), James Sobol Kelly (Gloucester), Noel White (Kent), Ben Ashton (Edmund), Tim Allsop (Oswald), Matt Pinches (Edgar) and Richard Neale (Cornwall).

We caught up with Brian to find out more about his part in the production.

You're performing in King Lear in Guildford this month, how did it all come about?

Well, I've performed at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company but I've always wanted to find a company where I could be more relaxed, without so much pressure. I think the Guildford Shakespeare Company is a kind of beacon to the rest of the Britain, they do the most exciting stuff. I saw five of them do Henry V and I was astonished that they pulled it off. I find them refreshingly imaginative. I live not far from Guildford and I thought this [doing King Lear] would be a way of saying thank you to all the lovely people of this area who have done so much for me.

Why has it taken you until now to play Lear on stage?

I don't know, I've just been looking for the right director. A lot of our directors are quite aged and they've got set ideas whereas our director Caroline Devlin is full of new ideas and new sensations and is totally original. So I've been trying to find an original director and company, and I've found it here, it's like Shangri-La.

I've always wanted to do King Lear on stage and I hoped [this production] would be quite different and original in concept. When I was about 14 years of age I remember seeing it with Patrick Stewart who was about 12 or 11, he was my sweet little friend, and we saw the great Sir Donald Wolfit do it at the Lyceum in Sheffield. Harold Pinter once said to me – when I was a student at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and he was at university – that he took up writing and acting because of seeing Wolfit as King Lear. That always stayed in my mind and I always thought I'd love to do it one day.

And your daughter Rosalind is playing Goneril, how does that feel?

It's wonderful. She played Emilia in Othello with this company, absolutely outstanding; I'm not being prejudiced but she's an outstanding actress, vocally very gifted. At the read-through I could see she was taken aback at some of the things I was doing – I almost broke the reading table in half. The cast are all so young and very very brilliant, I was worried that I'd come across as old fashioned but I'm very much a modern man! Rosalind and I work off each other really marvelously.

What was your reaction when Rosalind first said to you that she wanted to act?

Thrilled. I think the most important thing in life is to do the things you love. Of course I'm always talking about adventure – 50% of my life is adventure, 50% is acting. People always say to me when talking about Everest or going to the North Pole, "Isn't it dangerous?" I think the most dangerous thing in life is not taking the adventure. I look on this Lear as a bit of an Everest, an adventure; I think that once we do stop taking adventures then we start to die.

How have you approached this production?

I think a big mistake with playing King Lear is to make him too senile. The man has colossal energy levels, so the idea of coming on ancient or old and in a wheelchair is nuts. Mine is much more powerful, I hope, even a touch of Genghis Khan. The man is a majestic, powerful creature with great energy, he has a slight heart problem I think and is prone to mental storms. But the main thing is that it must gallop apace; I've been to productions that last five and half hours, and that is not on. I think this is two and a half hours with an interval, so people will watch it and before they know where they are it will be the interval. It's not a long dragged out heavy dirge, but a lightning get-in-get-a-bloody-move-on!

What else would you say to entice people along?

Come and see it! We'll be having a go, doing new things that might reveal [the play] in a different light. I hope to bring things to Lear that other people haven't attempted. I hope that their journey here isn't just to be part of the audience because they will be part of the show anyway. It's really to become one and grow with me – it will be a happening, I hope.

King Lear is playing at the Holy Trinity Church in Guildford from 17 January – 14 February. For more information and to book tickets, click here.