Lear says of himself that he is ‘fourscore and upward.’ But Shakespeare is notoriously vague about the age of his characters, and some of them – like Macbeth – age unrealistically during the course of the action. Lear calls his Fool ‘boy’, but nowadays he is almost always played as Lear’s contemporary, or at least as someone who has grown old in his master’s service. And I have seen Lear himself played by a seventeen-year-old schoolboy – Mark Donald, now a professional actor. Richard Burbage was under forty when he created the role, David Garrick was only twenty-five when he first played it, John Gielgud twenty-seven (though he also recorded for it Radio 3 for his ninetieth birthday), Edmund Kean thirty-three, Laurence Olivier (who provocatively called it ‘an easy part’) thirty-nine, and Paul Scofield forty. Beale (who also had played the role at school, and who cuts the ‘fourscore…’ line) is fifty-three. Of course actors should be able to appear either younger or older than they are in real life. So actual age is not necessarily a hurdle.
The journey to the summit is littered with potential obstacles. It is not made any easier by the fact that, as we now realize, there is a choice between two different routes, one charted in Shakespeare’s original version of the play, printed in 1608, the other as it was revised, presumably with his involvement, published in the 1623 Folio. Both routes are tortuous and long. Modern actors, or directors on their behalf, often seek out short cuts. But some problem areas are non-negotiable.
One is the multiplicity of styles in which Lear speaks. Sometimes, especially at the start of the journey, he can step out confidently in the rhythms of regular blank verse. Such is the passionate but formal eloquence of the speeches in which he banishes Cordelia, curses Goneril, and expresses his misguided confidence in Regan’s kindness.
But at other points the emotion exists not in the lines but between them, and the actor has to step in gingerly interaction with his fellow travellers, using hesitations, pauses, silent gestures and expressive looks to create a sense of interiority, the impression of something going on within him which doesn’t easily come to the surface. It happens in the little scene when his Fool is desperately trying to cheer Lear up but all the King can do is to pursue his own interior self-recriminations – ‘I did her wrong’ – ‘So kind a father!’ It’s the kind of dialogue that might have been written by Beckett or Pinter.
Some of his longer speeches, too, such as ‘O reason not the need’, are broken up with hesitations, shifts of direction, invocations to the gods, interiorities that allow glimpses of the inner man, requiring the actor to create a sense of improvisation, as if the thoughts come tumbling into his mind more quickly than he can express them.
And how far dare he allow laughter to punctuate his tragic journey in the inconsequentialities of Lear’s mad speeches when he tries to give a piece of toasted cheese to an imagined mouse, or in the grotesque dialogue with the blind Gloucester? For me, one of the most poignant moments in drama comes when, in response to Gloucester’s ‘O, let me kiss that hand!’, Lear says ‘Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.’ It makes me shudder. But it often gets a laugh, I suppose because of the contrast between the formality of Gloucester’s request and the lack of dignity in Lear’s response. Should the actor let the laugh come, or is it better to try to kill it?
The terrain gets even rougher towards the end of the journey. What do you do with Lear’s four-times repeated cry of ‘Howl’ as he carries (or drags) on Cordelia’s dead body? Are they interior cries of despair or pleas to the onlookers to share his grief? McKellen made them both, addressing the first two to himself, the second to the onlookers. And what about the five times repeated ‘never’ over the body: ‘Thou’lt come no more. / Never, never, never, never, never,’? How much rhythmic variation dare you allow to enter the line? How do you stop it from sounding just monotonous?
And Lear has to die when he gets to the top (unless of course he’s playing in the Nahum Tate adaptation which sends him along with Gloucester and Kent into peaceful retirement.) He has a choice here. In the quarto text he just says ‘O.O.O.O.’ On the page it looks silly. Shakespeare is leaving everything to the actor – presumably expecting a series of expiring sighs as his oxygen gives out.
In the Folio Lear has an extra couple of lines. ‘Do you see this? Look on her. Look, her lips. / Look there, look there.’ Look where? When Adrian Noble asked me to write a programme note for his production with Robert Stephens as Lear, I wrote initially that Lear addresses ‘Look there, look there’ to Cordelia’s lips, but I was asked to change it because Lear at this point was to have ‘a kind of vision.’ So he did, gesturing away from the body into the heavens, as if waving farewell to her spirit.
After playing Lear, jumping through Hamlet’s hoops must seem like child’s play.