King lear

The Madness of George III is much easier to like than King Lear

The longest interval in theatre history continues. Last week the National Theatre livestreamed a 2018 version of The Madness of George III produced by Nottingham Playhouse with Mark Gatiss in the title role. The script, written by Alan Bennett as a response to King Lear, is much easier to like than the original. An engaging family comedy, with a sad bit in the middle, it benefits from a wonderfully happy ending. The good king is cured, the bad doctors are vanquished, order is restored. A real crowd-pleaser. Bennett’s research gives it the feeling of a documentary drama as he examines the difficulties faced by monarchs who wielded real political power.

God save us from the King

Gandalf, also known as Ian McKellen, has awarded himself another lap of honour by bringing King Lear back to London. Jonathan Munby directs. His eccentric decision to hire actors who don’t resemble their characters will baffle anyone who hasn’t studied the play in advance. The casting may be ‘colour-blind’, but the audience isn’t. Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Cordelia) evidently has no white ancestry and therefore cannot be Lear’s natural daughter. A newcomer might deduce that the king’s cruelty towards her stems from her second-class status as an adoptive child. And anyone trying to unravel that mystery will be equally baffled by Sinead Cusack’s Kent. Of the four women on stage in the

Fresh and wild | 31 May 2018

I recently came across a theory of the American poet Delmore Schwartz’s that Hamlet only makes sense if you assume from the beginning that all the characters are drunk. Given Schwartz’s own fondness for booze, this idea perhaps smacks of drunken hyperbole itself. But it certainly sprang to mind while watching BBC2’s King Lear (Monday), where Anthony Hopkins spent quite a lot of the first half swigging enthusiastically from a hipflask. After all, this did appear to explain much of Lear’s behaviour: the constant alternation between belligerence and sentimentality; the combination of self-dramatisation, self-pity and — the way Hopkins played it — self-amusement; and maybe even that initial decision to

Diary – 23 November 2017

At the top of Machu Picchu last week, I saw two wide-winged condors swoop over Sacred Valley through a rainbow that curved between two holy mountains. Weary after many books and travels, I felt restored and inspired by this magic. There was hardly anyone in Machu Picchu; its cliffs vertiginous, its cloud jungle lushly impenetrable, it was discovered by outsiders only a century ago. Built as a royal estate and shrine by Inca conqueror Pachacutec around 1450, during our Wars of the Roses, no one knows when or why it was abandoned — because of Spanish conquest, or decades earlier due to civil war? Earlier I set out from Cusco,

Keeping it in the family

A new orthodoxy governs the casting process in Hollywood. An actor’s ethnicity must match the character’s. If you extend this decree to Shakespeare, you need Macbeth to be played by a Highlander, Shylock by a Venetian Jew, Richard III by an English hunchback and Cleopatra by an Egyptian who has slept with her brother. As for Hamlet, the play can only be entrusted to a family of incestuous Scandinavians. Gyles Brandreth (whose name means ‘firebrand’ or ‘sword’ in old Norse) has anticipated the trend by staging a production alongside his son and his daughter-in-law. Benet Brandreth plays the Dane while his wife, Kosha, plays Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Laertes and Horatio.

Appointment with death

It’s reassuring that of Ed Docx’s three admirably eclectic, though sometimes uneven, previous novels, Let Go My Hand most resembles the capacious, Booker long-listed Self-Help. Like that book, this is fiction with heft and moral nuance; a novel that gets its hands dirty in the soiled laundry basket of family secrets and resentments. As such, it’s his most universal, moving and resonant work to date. Appropriately for a book whose title is taken from Gloucester’s impassioned command to Edgar in King Lear, the story begins at Dover, with the narrator Lou and his 71-year-old academic father Larry (‘one of the prophets of the new literary theory’), about to embark on

In defence of the stiff upper lip

At the time of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, Prince William and Prince Harry were in Balmoral. Somebody who claimed to know told me shortly afterwards that what the boys had most wanted to do, in reaction to the terrible news, was to go out and shoot a stag. They were not allowed to. I do not know if the story was true, but if it was, the boys’ desire seemed understandable. How could anyone — much less a teenager and a 12-year-old — ‘process’ such an event? The best immediate solace would be something strenuous, physical and wild. Twenty years later, Prince Harry has told us

Death by television

Forty years ago this month a film appeared, so prescient I wonder if its author, Paddy Chayefsky, saw the 2016 American presidential election campaign in a crystal ball. It was called Network and it foretold the rise of Donald Trump. The plot is King Lear appears on Newsnight: a newsman run mad. The protagonist is Howard Beale (Peter Finch), an anchorman at a failing network. The year is 1976, and America is embattled with inflation, depression and the end of the Vietnam war. It is not a time for American heroes, to paraphrase Chayefsky’s acolyte Aaron Sorkin writing in The West Wing. Beale’s ratings are low. He is fired. He

Lloyd Evans

Angry bird

Dynastic affairs and international relations were once a seamless continuum. Royal weddings accompanied peace treaties. An heirless realm was vulnerable to invasion. Botched successions led to war. This is the political context of King Lear but Deborah Warner sets the play in modern times, which muddles everything. Britain in the Dark Ages is represented by a scout hut or a therapy suite. Plain walls, bleached flooring, a semi-circle of blue plastic chairs. Enter the king’s court led by a crownless Glenda Jackson (Lear), sporting a black ensemble topped by a chic scarlet cardigan. Is this a brutal tyrant on the brink of a psychotic meltdown? Nope. It looks like Granny

Emma Rice was never as radical as she thought she was

Towards the end of Emma Rice’s recent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of the mechanicals decides to give us a piece of her mind. ‘It’s a visual concept!’ screams Nandi Bhebhe’s Starveling (for it is She), as the young lords and ladies mock her costume in the play within a play. ‘Why is everybody so obsessed with text?’  This was Rice’s gauntlet, thrown to her critics as she arrived as the controversial new artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe. But Rice, as usual, was tilting at a straw man. None of her serious critics in theatreland have a problem with textual experiment, nor with Rice’s yen for cross gender

We should celebrate the killer clowns

All over the world, people are dressing up as clowns to scare unsuspecting members of the public. Sightings began in South Carolina but quickly spread to Canada, Australia and the UK. Not everyone is happy about this craze: the Met Police are the latest to pour cold water on the so-called ‘killer clowns’, warning people ‘to act in a responsible manner’. But even though dressing up as clowns is an unusual way for people to spend their time, I can’t help but admire them for their commitment to the performance. After all, they are not the progenitors of this craze. The clash between ‘killer clowns’ and ‘classic clowns’ is an inversion of an

Where should this music be?

This must rank as the most heartbreaking example of premature chicken-counting in musical history. ‘Gotter has made a marvellous free adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest,’ wrote poet Gottfried Bürger to the translator A.W. Schlegel on 31 October 1791. ‘Mozart is composing the piece.’ Three days later, brimming with misplaced confidence, the dramatist Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter confirmed that ‘the edifice is all ready to receive Mozart’s heavenly choruses’. By 5 December 1791, Mozart was dead. Most probably, he never saw Gotter’s Tempest adaptation, although the musicologist Alfred Einstein stirred the pot of Mozartian myth by presuming that the master had set to work on it during his dying days. So the

Shakespeare’s crowning glory

In the 18th century, as Shakespeare began to take on classic status, editors began to notice differences between the texts of the plays preserved by his fellow actors in the posthumously published First Folio of his Comedies, Histories & Tragedies and those that had been published in the playwright’s lifetime in the cheap pocket editions, analogous to modern paperbacks, known in the trade as Quartos. In the case of King Lear, the subject of Sir Brian Vickers’s new book, the Quarto of 1608 is strikingly different from the Folio of 1623. The Quarto has nearly 300 lines that are not in the Folio; the Folio has over 100 lines that

Get thee to a notary

Given this year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there was always going to be a slew of new publications; few, I suspect, will have as long-lasting an effect as John Kerrigan’s. His field of inquiry is both straightforward and complicated. It is almost retrospectively obvious that Shakespeare’s plays contain a great amount of vows, oaths, swearing both covenantual and vulgar, pledges, promises and imprecations. The same might be said for a great many playwrights’ works; but the depth of subtlety which Kerrigan finds in the handling of these specific rhetorical forms is compelling. It comprises broad historical context —this was an age in which oaths of allegiance were politically demanded

Lloyd Evans

Death and the Bard

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Lloyd Evans and Dr Daniel Swift discuss how Shakespeare died” startat=1008] Listen [/audioplayer]How did the Bard kick the bucket? The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death reignites interest in a great literary mystery. All we know for sure is that he was buried on 25 April 1616 in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford, and it’s a fair assumption that he died a couple of days earlier, around his 52nd birthday. A dearth of evidence compels us to sift the plays for clues to his lifestyle, which may, in turn, help with the autopsy. Historians condemn this kind of detective work but their reasons seem pretty unfair. Imagine that the biographies

Existential threat: the birth of a cliché

In the endless game of word association that governs vocabulary, the current favourite as a partner of existential is threat. They make an odd couple. Max Hastings managed to get them into the Daily Mail the other day, writing that ‘although Islamic fanatics can cause us pain and grief, they pose no existential threat as did Hitler’s Germany’. A letter to the Times said that the Charlie terrorists’ ‘wicked ideology is an existential threat to Islam itself’. In those examples, the threat is to our existence or to the existence of Islam. But in this phrase from an article by Irwin Stelzer in the Sunday Times, ‘sincere believers in the

Sam Mendes’s King Lear is a must-see for masochists

Directors appear to have two design options when approaching a Shakespeare tragedy. Woodstock or jackboot. Woodstock means papal robes, shoulder-length hair and silver Excaliburs gleaming from jewelled belts. Jackboot means pistols, berets, holsters and submachine-guns. Sam Mendes sticks the jackboot into King Lear in an attempt to find ‘a modern understanding of the story’, as he puts it. What this ‘modern understanding’ reveals is that Shakespeare’s opening scene allows the dramatic focus to move between the personal and the political with invisible fluency. Mendes destroys this asset by laying on a televised show trial. Lear’s daughters, surrounded by scowling commandos, are arraigned at miked-up tables as if accused of treason.

Interview: David Haig on King Lear and The Wright Way

David Haig is one of those actors who can’t escape the visual identity of his characters. He’s the sad suburban salaryman. He’s the pasty-faced petty bureaucrat. He’s the bungling office curmudgeon with a volcanic temper. He just looks that way. Except that he doesn’t. I barely recognise the suntanned Bohemian figure who strolls up and shakes me by the hand. With his summery shirt and his trim grey beard he looks like a rakish Cretan sailor ready to pour himself a double ouzo and start reminiscing about the mermaids. He’s rehearsing Lear, at the Theatre Royal Bath, when we meet. ‘It’s an addiction,’ he says. ‘Any actor, past a certain