Is King Lear a mountain or molehill? How to play the tragic monarch and ‘stupid old fart’

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Kenneth Branagh is set to play, and direct, King Lear and doubtless we shall hear the usual critical cliches about his attempt to scale a theatrical Everest. But is the role of Lear that difficult? The 19th-century American actor Edwin Forrest said: “I play Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth but by heaven, sir, I am Lear.” Olivier concurred, claiming: “Frankly Lear is an easy part … He’s like all of us really: he’s just a stupid old fart.” And when I asked Tom Courtenay recently how he coped with Lear, he said: “I had a much jollier time with it than playing Hamlet. The only problem was doing two shows in one day.”

Looking back over the 40 or more Lears I have seen, I am struck by the fact that only two were less than a success and for similar reasons. I saw Charles Laughton play King Lear at Stratford in 1959 and, although it was a performance of profound pathos, it lacked vocal heft: Michael Blakemore, who was one of Lear’s knights, wrote that Laughton wasn’t up to the big rhetorical passages because “he didn’t have the machinery”. Much the same was true of Nigel Hawthorne when he essayed the role in a production by Yukio Ninagawa in 1999. As I wrote at the time, “his well-modulated dry-sherry voice is unable to encompass Lear’s titanic rages”.

But more actors succeed as Lear than not and, rather than itemise them, I have picked out those who have enriched our understanding of the play: acting, at best, is a form of practical criticism and teaches you more than the textbooks ever could. The stock image of Lear when I started going to the theatre was of some Blakeian Ancient of Days tottering around a Stonehenge-like set but that was forever banished by Paul Scofield’s performance in Peter Brook’s 1962 production. For a start Scofield was only 40 when he played Lear: roughly the same age as Richard Burbage in the first known performance in 1606.

More importantly, Scofield gave us a testy crew-cut autocrat who never demanded our sympathy even if he ultimately gained it. It was Brook’s idea to present the play with a moral neutrality so that Goneril and Regan reasonably objected to the presence of Lear’s obstreperous knights. But it was Scofield, with that voice that could cut through metal, who showed us that Lear was driven by a desire to punish his daughters: “I shall go mad!”, as Tynan noted, became a threat rather than a pathetic prediction.

Quickened one’s apprehension … Ian McKellen as King Lear at the RSC in 2007.
Quickened one’s apprehension … Ian McKellen as King Lear at the RSC in 2007. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

If Scofield drained the part of sentimentality, John Wood’s performance, in Nicholas Hytner’s 1990 RSC production, was equally groundbreaking. What we learned was that there was no simple linear progression in Lear in which folly led to madness and thence to moral regeneration: the essence of Wood’s Lear was that he lived in a permanent state of spiritual schizophrenia. “Better thou hadst not been born,” he cried to Cordelia but then choked, unable to finish the sentence. Having intemperately cursed Goneril with sterility, he suddenly rushed to give her a fierce paternal embrace. This was a Lear of boundless curiosity: in the hovel scene he pursued Poor Tom with the fascination of a questing scientist. But, above all, Wood reminded us that both the role of King Lear, and the play itself, is one of endless, and even senseless, contradiction.

But all the best Lears quicken one’s apprehension. When Ian McKellen played the part in Trevor Nunn’s 2007 production he showed us, just as he had in his first great success in Richard II, that Lear moves from a figure encased in public ceremony to one who reaches the square root of humanity. Simon Russell Beale, in Sam Mendes’s 2014 National Theatre production, not only highlighted the role’s contradictions but also its wild comedy: in the hovel scene, padding around in his underpants, he affected to put Goneril and Regan on trial while staring at an upended tea-urn and a lavatory bowl. A year later Barrie Rutter, in a memorable Jonathan Miller production for Northern Broadsides, showed that Lear is a play rooted in a domestic conflict that only gradually expands into a metaphor for universal crisis: Rutter’s Lear was above all else an errant father for whom even the division of the kingdom was an intimate family affair.

We have also learned in recent years that Lear is a role that transcends gender. Kathryn Hunter has played the part twice in productions for Helena Kaut-Howson. I saw the first one at Leicester Haymarket in 1997 where the play became a dying woman’s fantasy expressing all her thoughts about filial ingratitude and cosmic cruelty: with her stick-wielding testiness and dry sandpaper voice, Hunter gave us the essence of Lear.

Glenda Jackson was no less astonishing in Deborah Warner’s 2016 Old Vic production. As an ex politician, Jackson understandably emphasised Lear’s rage at earthly injustice but also brought out brilliantly the character’s volatility, waywardness and erosion of the division between sanity and madness. Since she was 80 when she played the part, her stamina was remarkable. But Jackson’s performance confirmed something I have discovered from a lifetime of Lears: that when actors banish all thoughts of the mythic and the monumental and use their own life-experience to present us with a recognisable human being then the part of Lear becomes essentially, if not easily, playable.