The astounding beauty of King Lear’s language

Brighton & Hove Independent, 6th May 2016

So is there an expectation that actors of a certain distinction will reach the point where tackling Lear seems absolutely inevitable?

Michael Pennington who takes on the role at the Theatre Royal Brighton until Saturday (May 7th) answers with a laugh… and a reference to Ralph Richardson.

“I always think of Ralph Richardson who used to say that you are going along and everything is fie and the sun is shining and then suddenly you get your foot caught in Lear! Well, it is now time with that particular bramble called Lear.

“I never used to think about playing Lear. I supposed I would get to do it one day, but I wasn’t sure that I had anything particular to offer in the role”

But then a few years ago, he was doing the Ronald Harwood play Collaboration in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, and there was something about his character that set him thinking about Lear more seriously.

As Michael says, with Lear, you have to accept that there is only a fairly narrow window in an actor’s career - that moment when you are roughly the right age but can still match memory with the energy the role requires.

“And you start to realise that if you miss that moment, then you have missed it forever.”

This is in fact Michael’s second Lear. His first was two years ago in New York. “It was a completely different production, and everything about it was different to the extent that I am the only point of contact between the two. I tried to import the American production ut it was too expensive and too difficult, so I remembered my old days as actor-manager and decided to try to set up a new production over here. We have come up with a really interesting co-production between a subsidised theatre in Northampton and the corporate sector. It has been fascinating to do.

“The American production was not instigated by me. I wanted to work with the resident director that the company uses, and I also wanted to work with the company. I was there as a novelty. They didn’t really know who I was. But having done Lear in New York, I wanted to do it in my own country.”

Michael came it all having appeared as Edgar in 1976 opposite Donald Sinden’s Lear: “But the play at first sight can appear quite remote, like some mountain covered in mist, but once you get into it, you realise just how marvellous the language is, just how astoundingly beautiful it all is.”

As for Lear himself: “I think he is terrific. His default ode is to fight back. He doesn’t do self-pity. He fights and fights and fights. His huge mistake is at the beginning of the play, but really the key thing is what we now call dementia. There is no question that most of us have experienced someone who comes and goes mentally as Lear does. Sometimes he is brilliantly clear, and sometimes he away with the fairies.

“To make his daughters go through the love test that he puts them through and making them declare their love for him is the beginning of his dementia. Everything would be fine if he didn’t do that, and he then deals with it in a very stupid and unrealistic way.”

And therein lies the continuing relevance of the play, as Michael argues. We don’t have to think of him as a remote ancient Briton. He could be the CEO of a big company: “It could be any figure of authority.”

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