Tyrant's statue casts long shadow

Playing Lear
December 12, 2003

Lay him to rest, the royal Lear with whom generations of actors have made us reverently familiar; the majestic ancient, wronged and maddened by his vicious daughters... Lay also to rest the archaic notion that Lear is automatically entitled to our sympathy because he is a king who suffers."

Kenneth Tynan pulled down the statue of the old tyrant, following the Brook-Scofield King Lear of 1962, and all subsequent productions have had to reassemble the pieces.

Oliver Ford Davies offers "an insider's guide, from text to performance". It is the record of a well-received King Lear at the Almeida Theatre in 2002, an eclectic production whose first act alluded to the abdication of Edward VIII. Davies takes us through his first and second readings, a survey of Lears in performance, an account of acting in Shakespeare, and the stages of the rehearsal diary. There are excerpts from reviews and interviews with the director Jonathan Kent and an earlier director John Barton. Davies is enlightening on the importance of correct breathing, the difficulties of supplying tears on demand, and on technical matters generally. He cites discussions with major actors, and has new-minted anecdotes. Olivier, directing Juno and the Paycock, urges the removal men: "This is YOUR forty-five seconds. TAKE IT." Playing Lear is intelligent, readable and candid (if with reticences), but condemned to be a Lear for our times.

This Lear reflects a scenario much in vogue today. A foolish old authoritarian, who fatally has failed to communicate with his family, embarks on a journey from suffering to self-knowledge and redemption. Or, as Kent puts it: "In the second half of the play he learns compassion, he learns the feminine qualities."

Davies adheres to this scenario. His own character note, agreed by actor and director, is "benign humanity". Davies views Lear as "a spoilt child with little understanding of himself, and none of other people". This Lear balks at carrying Cordelia on stage, "the ultimate test of an ageing actor's virility". He might embrace the feminine qualities, but he won't heft them.

The objections to the scenario get no hearing. For a spoilt child of 80, Lear hasn't done too badly, running a stable kingdom and bringing in two of our continental partners for the Cordelia auction. Lear has had a bad press for dividing the kingdom, though his policy is an uncanny pre-echo of devolution, today seen as a masterstroke of statecraft. Lear's dispositions for the succession are perfectly defensible until blown off course by a gust of rage. The insufferably self-righteous Cordelia - that archetypal Hampstead liberal - has ruined his big production, live on TV at the Almeida. All he wants is for his favourite daughter to say "thank you" for the Southeast of England, but Cordelia uses the Oscar ceremony to make a radical speech.

But nobody queries the pieties in which this production is grounded. Playing Lear is an excellent personal memoir of a production blocked by deep-vein sentimentality.

Ralph Berry's most recent book is Tragic Instance: The Sequence of Shakespeare's Tragedies.

Playing Lear

Author - Oliver Ford Davies
Publisher - Nick Hern Books
Pages - 211
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 85459 698 5

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