Performing King Lear by Jonathan Croall

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Reviewed by Harriet

The role of King Lear is seen today as the ultimate challenge for the classical actor, the one that provides the supreme test of his abilities in the theatre.

So writes Jonathan Croall at the beginning of this, his ambitious survey of performances and interpretations of the leading role in what is now often considered to be Shakespeare’s pre-eminent work. Croall managed to talk in depth to twenty actors who have played the part, plus a number of directors, and made use of written accounts of the performances of over thirty more, from John Gielgud to Simon Russell Beale. Some of them played the part more than once over the years (several of them played it three times, and Gielgud four times), offering a fascinating opportunity for comparing the difference in interpretations. For King Lear as a whole, and the character of the king in particular, have been interpreted in widely varying ways over the last hundred or so years, something which is arguably a reason for the play’s enduring fascination. Kenneth Tynan called the play ‘a labyrinthine citadel, all but impregnable’, and the actors and directors whose work is featured here will generally have agreed.

Needless to say, interpretations of the play over the years have reflected the social and political viewpoints of their day. Some directors will have familiarised themselves with the huge amount of existing academic criticism of the play (or with alternative versions, like Peter Hall, who chose to use the less common Folio version), while others preferred to follow their own instincts, obviously in both cases working in close consultation with their leading actor. Broadly, what seems to have happened is that opinion has swung more and more away from a sympathetic view of the old king who, despite an obviously great mistake at the start, evokes our pity for his plight, his madness, and his loss of the daughter he finds again too late. Instead, in recent decades he has been played as an autocratic dictator, or as the culpable father of a dysfunctional family, or as a man already suffering from the beginning of the insanity to which he succumbs later in the play. However it may be interpreted, Lear is obviously a part much coveted by actors, many of whom view it as a kind of yardstick: ‘If I can do Lear I can do anything’, as Tom Piggot Smith said to Croall.

Jonathan Croall is an experienced researcher and biographer – his mega biographies of John Gielgud and Sibyl Thorndike are impressively thorough – and he has left no stone unturned in this survey. If you spot anyone he’s left out, that will be because, as he says at the beginning, a few people declined to be interviewed and included. The book is divided into more or less chronological chapters according to the venues where the productions were done. Thus, we have the major theatres – the Old Vic, Stratford, the Royal Shakespeare, the Globe, the National – and also the regional theatres, Wales and Scotland, productions in the round, touring companies, and smaller spaces. There are the great names – Gielgud, Olivier, Redgrave, Schofield, Hopkins among others – plus some less familiar, though no less impressive-sounding in performance. There’s a female actor, Kathryn Hunter, whose brilliant King Lear I was lucky enough to see a few years ago, and two black King Lears, Joseph Marcell and Nonzo Anzonie. In the end, though, gender and race clearly matter less than interpretation, and it’s not surprising to find that, with such a complex character, different actors have particular strengths and weaknesses. Some may have excelled at playing the angry, obstinate king at the start but fallen short of the pathos of the ending, or done better at the madness than at the initial sanity. The storm scene seems to have proved the greatest challenge for many, needing a powerful presence and a strong voice to compete with the loud thunder that the scene requires. We also get to hear something of the way other parts have been played, especially that of Lear’s Fool, who has been presented in an amazing variety of ways.

In the final analysis, the way the play appears in its finished performance will depend on the collaboration between actor, director and designer. Indeed, Croall’s book tells us much about the processes involved in staging a play. It’s fascinating to read about how the director approaches the initial rehearsal period. A long passage is devoted to Peter Brook’s famous 1962 production at Stratford, which gives an almost blow-by-blow account. The actors were required to improvise, which most of them hated, and which Paul Schofield, Brook’s Lear, flatly refused to do. Brook gave them considerable scope in their interpretations, asking them, for example, to choose one prop that exemplified their character. He designed the set himself, reflecting ‘an elaborate Renaissance world’, but then changed his mind after the workshops had started to construct it and instead went for a ‘simple and austere [set], with three white walls which opened out onto a black cyclorama, sparse furniture of rough wood, and a minimum of props’. That production could be said to have paved the way for new presentations and interpretations of the play, but it was certainly not the first experimental approach. In terms of experimental design, at the top of the list must surely be Gielgud’s fourth Lear, directed at Stratford in 1955 by George Devine. Gielgud had seen the work of the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and persuaded Devine to let him design the set and costumes. It was an interesting idea, but Noguchi’s bizarre costumes in particular came to dominate the whole production and overshadow the acting performances in the eyes of most of the critics. However it certainly paved the way for Brook’s later version and many other experimental interpretations.

So, this book will be of great interest to a wide range of people – students and academics interested in interpretations of this complex play, actors, directors and designers (the book is particularly strong on describing the many and various ways in which the play has been staged from a visual point of view), and of course anyone who loves the play itself.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and once burst into tears on a Greek beach while telling the story of King Lear to her teenage daughter.

Jonathan Croall, Performing King Lear: Gielgud to Russell Beale (Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2015). 978-1474223850, 250pp., paperback.

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